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Nick Carr: Google Making Us Stupid? How About Smarter?

The media or other technologies we use in learning the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains.

Nick Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, The Atlantic, July/August 2008

Nick Carr has a really interesting piece in the current issue of The Atlantic (CNET coverage here). The premise of the article is that use of the web is possibly rewiring our modes of thinking. We’ve become much more adept at the light skimming of content than the deeper understanding of long thought pieces. If that’s the case, what does that mean mean for intellectual progress in the future?

The article is full of historical references (e.g. how Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing changed when he went to the typewriter) and scientific studies (e.g. the plasticity of the human brain enables us to adapt to new learning modes).

One area that Nick doesn’t talk about much is apophenia, which Maki on FriendFeed first alerted me to. According to Wikipedia:

Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by a “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”.

Robert Scoble employs apophenia as part of his profession. In one of his posts, he says: “I like the noise. Why? Because I can see patterns before anyone else.”

In this way, the larger consumption of data in lightweight chunks can be thought to bring a new kind of intelligence to people. Your subconscious is collecting a series of signals along the way. At some point, all of this information lurking just below your accessible thought pops up, and you’re suddenly aware of an emerging dynamic.

I really like this idea. And it fits with how we pick up information ourselves in the physical world. You don’t stop and ask people what they’re talking about on the street. But you may pick something up as you listen in to their conversations. You may not read the planning commission report, but you see how development is progressing in your town based on the construction you see.

I’ll contrast apophenia with traditional learning, in which a person can go deep with the thinking of a few selected masters in a field. But I draw this contrast not to dismiss traditional learning. Not at all. Understanding things based on a deeper reading of learned intellectuals and practitioners is a vital part of learning.

I hope Nick is wrong about losing our ability to sit through a longer piece. I haven’t lost that – I read his article twice this weekend.

If we can add a new mode of learning via apophenia to our traditional forms of undersatnding concepts, we’re all going to be smarter in the long run.

*****

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