Thursday, July 10, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

"The Conversation" is a radio show produced by KUOW 94.9 FM (a major Seattle area NPR station), which asks a question, usually from recent headlines, and then spends as near as they can the rest of the hour airing answers by phone and email. The question not very well posed today was the headline of a sloppy article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in The Atlantic. Here is the email I wrote them after the show:

In light of the recent "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" show, I find it interesting that the format of The Conversation promotes the sort of attention deficit that the article conjectures is the fault of the net. It amounts to a collage of mostly disconnected and often provably wrong opinions. Perhaps I am expecting too much, a discussion rather than a conversation.

Now that the show is over I finally have an opportunity to read and digest the article in The Atlantic, I can make informed comments on the article we were supposed to converse about. First of all, contrary to what you said, the article doesn't just ask the question, but it conjectures that the net is making us stupid ("I think I know what's going on..."). It mischaracterizes Google and the net as, among other things, Taylorist. It also makes faulty references, and ignores context.

Google and the net are not Taylorist. Taylor was concerned with maximizing efficiency and speed of manufacturing. Google usually uses nearly brute force methods, figuring that's good enough. So far that approach has been pretty good, but not terribly efficient. The net is (or was) tuned for reliability and as a playground for computer scientists. Then conventional mass media with it's incredibly hyperactive adds invaded. Most people didn't see the net before it was commercialized. The author basically says the net infected old media with it's attention deficit, when in fact it was the other way around.

Kubrick's movie "2001" was based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, and Kubrick intentionally made it ambiguous, and repeatedly said so. So it is absurd when the article says "That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." That's the essence of the authors interpretation, not Kubrick's.

Some of your callers asserted that these days people are just lazy and get knowledge of the net instead of figuring it out for themselves. I don't remember the exact quote, and would have to look it up (on the net, of course), but some famous genius said something about standing on the shoulders of giants. We can't figure everything out on our own, even if we restrict ourselves to very narrow fields. Some claim the information on the net is somehow less accurate than in meatspace. You would'nt really believe an absurd note left in your mailbox asking for your bank info so they can make you rich, would you? Oh wait, some of you probably would. Some blame the net for their lack of mental discipline and exercise, when the net provides unprecedented opportunities for developing mental skills. The net is an incredibly powerful tool. It seems to have this uncanny ability to reveal humanities flaws and brilliance. We tend to blame the messanger for news we don't want to hear. The net is an incredible messenger. "With great power there must also come great responsibility." Of course, the net, as much as some of us would like it to, has no power of it's own. The net just reflects our power, and our responsibility or lack thereof.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Wow! Very well reasoned and written.