Is Google changing the way we think?


The July/August issue of Atlantic magazine contains a thought-provoking piece by Nicholas Carr posing the question, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The core notion is that the way we think is shaped by the tools we use, and Google and the internet in general work in fundamentally different ways that their predecessor as the source of information, the printed document. Ergo, the way we think is evolving, too.

I've long been struck by the progress of human conversations, the way they usually flit from topic to topic, linked by the most casual of coincidences. My use of the internet often emulates this, as I dip into an article only to click on the first link that diverts my attention from my original search. Before I know it, I'm twelve sites removed from my original quest reading about something that has twelve degrees of separation from my intended topic.

Contrast this with the same quest 50 years ago. I would go to the library, look up a citation, pull the cited book from the shelf, and begin to read. As I encountered diverting information, I would write down the info for later research, then continue on reading the core document to the end. This focus of attention, sometimes forcing myself to stay with difficult arguments to the end, some would term deep thinking -- pressing through the mundane to search for truths not intuitive or easy to grasp. By doing so, I learned to think in this way, sequentially, orderly.

By contrast, the flitting behavior of my internet use fits the new term 'pancake people', we of broad and shallow knowledge. Am I, in fact, being shaped by Google into a pancake person? What about you? Is your internet reading as structured and comprehensive as your paper reading? Or is it a pinball, a conversation stringing together shiny bits that weigh nothing?

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