Does Google Really make Us Stupid?

While on a recent vacation, a reader sent me this message:

If this makes sense, write an article on why it's stupid to use dictionaries in hardcore religion debates (I remember Dictionary.com was used in a "faith" argument I was in).

I see people refute concepts of omnipotence and faith by using dictionaries. I'm sick of it, and I would like it if you would write about this issue.

I received this message while at a public library in North Carolina, and somewhat ironically, saw as I exited a cover story for Atlantic Monthly that fit right in with this query objecting to the use of things like dictionaries for complex debates. Author Nicholas Carr's article was titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (see cover below_ -- and it has some intriguing relevance for apologetics.

Let me say to begin that neither I nor Carr say that Google "makes us stupid" in the sense that it is directly responsible for stupidity. Google is really no different functionally than Boolean search engines used by professional researchers like myself (such as the DIALOG databases). The point rather is that Google and other engines have become tools that have further enabled those who were already predisposed to be lazy.

Ironically again, while at that same North Carolina library, I found a comment from a reader named "Arthur" on the atheistic "Evangelical Realism" blog that aptly illustrates the problem:

I hate to ask, but what’s the "patronage model"? I’m being lazy by asking, I know it...but it’s not jumping out at me over at the Tekton site, and lots of (I think) unrelated things jump out at me if I Google it. It seems pretty important to Mr. Holding, and I know I ought to find it the honorable way, but –I’m so embarrassed! – I was hoping there might be a short answer. Sorry, I’ve always been a lousy student.

And therein lies the problem, as well as the problem with Wikipedia and numerous other sources: People like these want a "short answer." In turn, therein lies a problem for apologists: Such as these do not want to read detailed answers, as produced here or by sources like the ThinkTank; much less something as ponderous as an N. T. Wright volume.

No, these want an answer "in a can" -- so when it comes down to them deciding who makes the better case, how well informed will their decision be? They will decide who is right based on who makes the most powerful short, declarative assertion (e.g., "sound bite"), or makes the best emotional appeal -- not based on whose arguments are more detailed or more informed.

Based on experience of himself and others, Carr professes that the instant access of the Internet has altered the arrangement of his mental furniture, so to speak. His own experience he relates as follows:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what's going on. For more than a decade now, I've been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I've got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I'm not working, I'm as likely as not to be foraging in the Web's info-thickets-reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.

Speaking as an information professional who has used databases with quick-search capacity for decades, I will again emphasize that this is not a problem with Google but with the people who use it. I do agree that these engines can be a "godsend" in the way Carr describes -- for example, I have used Google to find quotes many times, or to make it easier to locate something.

But the error lies in thinking that ALL research is able to be done this way. It cannot be. Finding a "pithy quote" is not the same as understanding the patronage model of the Greco-Roman world. The former can be done, and lierally done, with Google. The latter cannot be. But too many people have allowed their mental habits to deteriorate such that they think that the two tasks are equal.

Carr relates the experiences of others who have said that the more they use the Internet, the less focus they have had, such that one of his friends, formerly a "voracious book reader," has now "stopped reading books altogether." Another says that he cannot even read a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs without skimming, because it is "too much to absorb."

Admittedly, Carr says, this is anecdotal evidence. And my own evidence is anecdotal and/or based on experience; I have encountered people like "Arthur" quite often these past few years in ministry.

Yet this experience is not without precedent or support: Carr notes an academic study that found that online readers do more skimming than depth reading. I should issue a caveat here as well: There are valid reasons to skim, or to just read abstracts, or lead paragraphs; I do this myself, in order to determine whether a source contains information I need.

But this has to do with targeted research to find out what will give an answer, once it is read in depth. Skimming is NOT something that should be done once we have our depth resource in hand. Yet that seems to be what people are doing, as Carr reports:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it's a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking-perhaps even a new sense of the self. "We are not only what we read," says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. "We are how we read." Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts "efficiency" and "immediacy" above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become "mere decoders of information." Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

The result of this loss of capacity, in terms of what apologists encounter, is manifest. People think that dictionaries and Wikipedia settle the argument. They think they can just deliver one-liners that refute detailed articles or arguments. They select just one paragraph to address from large articles and ignore the rest. They resort to pre-made declarations such as "that source is biased" or "it is intolerant to say I am wrong" because real research is beyond them. Google has truly "made them stoopid."

There is much more of worth in Carr's article, which may be found at the link below; not all is directly relevant to the apologist, though I believe all should benefit from the insight related to the effect of timekeeping devices on human mental processes and experience, and the mental-scattering effect of things like pop-up ads and text crawls.

For our purposes, the critical point is that accuracy and truth are regularly being sacrificed on the altars of efficiency and the saving of time. Certainly it is more "efficient" and much faster to accept what is said by Acharya S than it is to read mountains of literature by the likes of Ulansey and Detienne.

But efficiency has been mistaken for accuracy and completeness. Far too many are now letting Google, Wikipedia, or some other "convenient" source do their thinking for them -- and can we argue with such a person, or convince them that our detailed treatments are true instead?

As Carr rightly notes, past innovations like the printing press have likewise altered mental processes, and there were worries even then that these innovations would make men lazy and less studious. That they often did; but they also were accompanied by many positive benefits. In this we may stress once again that the problem is not Google, but people. Google has made them stoopid, but not without their full consent.

In light of the shallowness of thinking that permeates our discussions, however -- whether within church or from our opponents -- I cannot but appreciate Carr's quote of Foreman that refers to us becoming "'pancake people'-spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button."

Deep reading makes for deep thinking. What do you suppose shallow reading makes for, then?

-JPH

  • Link