Internet Communications

Why does Nicholas Carr think Google is making us stupid?
Answered by Valerie Conners and HowStuffWorks
  • Valerie Conners

    Valerie Conners

  • HowStuffWorks

    HowStuffWorks

  1. In his now infamous 2008 article for The Atlantic Monthly, "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains," writer Nicholas Carr proposed that while it's positive that the Internet -- not simply Google, despite the article's title -- has allowed our society to obtain near boundless amounts of information at the click of a mouse, this easy access comes at a cost. According to Carr, quickly retrieving mountains of data results in users quickly skimming content, rather than carefully reading and fully intellectualizing it. The result? A shortened attention span, and a growing inability to concentrate or read long texts.

    Carr takes issue with the constant skimming that results from using the Internet, primarily because he sees it altering how our society thinks. Carr believes the gathering and quick reading of information will revolutionize how we intake written data, debilitating our ability to read longer texts, for instance, a novel like War and Peace.

    Carr's suggestion provides great fodder for debate, and although anecdotal stories from people claiming an inability to concentrate beyond the first few paragraphs of a blog post often support his theories, subsequent studies seem to debunk them. A 2008 UCLA neuroscience study found that in older adults, using and searching the Internet fueled increased brain activity, which could ultimately improve brain function [source: Claburn]. Using magnetic resonance imaging scans (fMRI) taken of participants' brains both while reading long texts and then when searching the Internet, scientists found that more areas of the brain, specifically those related to complex reasoning, showed activity during the Internet searches than while reading.

    Some detractors of Carr's article may agree with his theory that the Internet is changing the way we think, but argue in turn, that this plethora of information at our fingertips is not necessarily a bad thing. Some have likened the Web's access to data to the invention of the printing press, which allowed broader access to books for the masses; so too will the Web disseminate information on a grand scale -- and this needn't be seen as a turn for the worse.

    Other people argue that Carr's concern is misguided: The problem may not lie in our inability to concentrate or think deeply, but is instead a result of the narrowing of resources used to answer a question or learn about a subject. For example, sociologists raised concerns that people using search engines to find information tend to use the top search results, and often those that are the most recently published. Additionally, because searches can be so fine-tuned, users find exactly what they are searching for; and this could mean that there is a lack of unique or differing perspectives easily available, resulting in a loss of access to and processing of new ideas.

    Carr's article and the reactions it has spawned are still relatively unstudied. It will likely take many years before society can assess the effects -- positive and negative -- which result from using, searching and reading on the Internet. 

    More answers from Valerie Conners »

  2. Carr's hypothesis is that a heavy reliance on the Internet is sapping humans of their ability to focus or concentrate on a single task. He argues that the Internet has created an environment filled with constant distractions. Other analysts and experts disagree with Carr's conclusions. Carr argues that we have an unprecedented amount of access to knowledge, but we're siphoning away our ability to process and understand that information.

    More answers from HowStuffWorks »



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