Monday, November 29, 2010

"Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (The Atlantic, July/August 2008)

I must admit, upon reading the title of this article my immediate, subconscious reaction was a resounding "YES". This stance was summed up nicely toward the end of the article when the author discusses Plato's Phaedrus in which Socrates "bemoaned the development of writing." His fear was people would substitute books for personal knowledge, taking for granted the abundant availability of information in text form. Though this contention is clearly laughable this day-and-age, I believe the fundamental stance echoes today with the evolution of the internet. I fear many replace their desire for structured learning with the immediate access to a broad base of information on the internet.
In reality this article addresses whether or not the internet, and it's accessibility encapsulated by the functionality of Google, is changing the way our minds work, as opposed to making us "stupid". It suggests our minds are adapting to the easy accessibility of such a broad base of information by focusing quickly and superficially. That we tend to multi-task and maintain a shallow depth on any one topic/subject. That people who have adapted to the internet to access information no longer read books or articles of great length, rather they prefer to access the exact information they need when they need it via Google, or other search tools.
Though we rely on primarily qualitative data to make these contentions at this point, awaiting more in-depth studies, I think it's fairly clear these points have a great deal of merit. I certainly related with the author when he reflected on his inability to focus intensely on any long piece of literature, his mind tending to wonder and his preference to multi-task. As a matter-of-fact during the time I read the article and posted to this blog I returned 2 text messages, 3 e-mails, and took a phone call, clearly my level of focus could be brought into question.
So, the real question posed here is will fears of the internet's negative impact on our cognitive ability prove to have merit, or will they shadow Socrates’ fear of the written word in Phaedrus? Personally, as I've mentioned, I think the contention that the internet is changing the way our minds work has a lot of merit and will likely continue for some time. As far as having a negative impact on our cognitive abilities, or making us "stupid" I'm not so sure. Thinking differently does not necessarily make us stupid. I believe the broad availability of information, whether it be written word, internet, Google, Wikipedia, etc., is a good thing, The easier the accessibility the better. I believe this access will breed greater innovation and more impactful developments in the future.
What do you think? If you were born today, with the level of access we are afforded, how would your upbringing have changed? Do you think your long-term capabilities would be impacted? Negatively/positively?



  1. Doug,
    I agree that new developments, whether it be technological or not, does change our mental processes but I also do think it can lead us to being more 'stupid'... it just might be too blunt for people to accept. My best example is when I was in basic finance and students would moan and whine about why they needed to learn how to do all the calculations manually when there are built-in Excel functions to do the job or when all else fails, just Google it, but they miss the whole point. If they don't know how to do it manually, then they won't understand why the calculation is right or why the equation is significant. Likewise, I feel the more heavily we rely on technology, we'll know more answers but will have less knowledge on the process of getting to the answer.

  2. I think if a younger me was given access to so much content on the internet I would not be a smart or successful. I'm sure I would have gravitated to the online games and YouTube videos that so many kids get hooked on today. Although it could have been a great resource for me back then, but even now I don't see the internet as replacing a good physical book. I don't think the internet is making us stupid, I think it is allowing our brains to do the serious work on tough information, while the internet is providing support with facts and menial data.

  3. At a meeting I had on campus, a woman gave a lecture on the difference between digital natives and digital immigrants. People born after 1978 are called digital natives, and people born before 1978 digital immigrants.

    Do you think that there really is a digital divide and that people born now will process information completely differently than people born 40 years ago?

    If this new way of thinking broadens our knowledge, but does not deepen it like the old school, is there a way to integrate the two so that we get the best of both worlds?

    Is that going to be the new challenge we face in the information world?

    I found an interesting article on it:



    Like receiving information quickly from multiple media sources.
    Like parallel processing and multi-tasking.
    Like processing pictures, sounds and video before text.
    Like random access to hyperlinked multimedia information.
    Like to network with others.
    Like to learn “just in time”.


    Like slow and controlled release of information from limited sources.
    Like singular processing and single or limited tasking.
    Like processing text before pictures, sounds and video.
    Like to receive information linearly, logically and sequentially.
    Like to work independently.
    Like to learn “just in case”.

  4. Doug,
    Great question.. and it's a tough one too. I really don't know, and I guess we will find out. I do feel that children are incredibly smart and have so much knowledge beyond their years, but of course, my sample size is very limited. I remember doing class projects with a Brittanica (hard copy) or the high-tech Encarta. I can't image how much more in-depth my learning would have gone if I had access to all the resources out there on the web. I remember making a volcano for science class. It took ALL day and it didn't work for the longest time. Well, some people could argue that it was good that it took me that long. But on the other hand, what if I went on the web, found the best way, did it in 2 hours, and had the rest of the afternoon to learn something new? So, I would venture to say, I think that the knowledge and resources out there are incredible and great for the future.. the impact on long-term capabilities, it's a toss up.