June 25, 2008
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Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Writing in the July/August number of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asks whether Google (and the Web) are making us stupid (or, rather, inattentive and distracted).

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Short answer: don't be silly. Thanks for playing.

Dept. of “What were they thinking?”: Carr finds it harder, lately, to read long articles and long books.

I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. 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.

Carr, who is rapidly approaching 50, has obviously forgotten what it was like to be in fourth grade. Kids talk like this all the time. They can’t concentrate. The book is boring. Those girls are making too much noise. There’s gonna be a ball game in the park at 3. Is it 3 yet?

Carr’s forgotten what it's like to be young, and look up at old people — your parents are likely to supply good material — and wonder what they do with their time. When I was in college, I used to wonder about this: my professors, for example, knew a lot more than I did, but they were also a lot older. In the previous four years, I'd learned the rudiments of three or four languages: how come none of them spoke a dozen? They'd read a lot more than I, but it didn’t really seem to be twenty or forty years worth of reading, not at the pace we were getting used to at Swarthmore. What was wrong with these people?

What was wrong, of course, is they had kids. And jobs. And some of them were tired. Some of them were bored now. Some of them wanted to go dig ditches or design cities or write. Some were old, some ill, and some were distracted by one thing or another. Life gets in the way. And there are other things worth doing — even I admit that. Sometimes, you need to put down the book and pick up the girl.

If you’re done with school and you don’t want to read Little Dorrit today, you don’t have to. There won’t be a test. Just don’t blame Google.