In preparation for a guest lecture session for a colleague’s MDDE 610 Introduction to Current Distance Education Technologies course at Athabasca University I have started monitoring the course online discussions and have reviewed required reading materials. In a forum discussion a student made reference to the Calgary Herald article Is the Internet ruining your ability to think? which offered an overview of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It appears that in this recently published book, Carr has essentially expanded his 2008 Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid in which he states:
My mind isn’t going-so far as I can tell-but it’s changing. 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.
In this article and in this latest book (which I am reading on my iPad) it appears that Carr is simply restating, or applying to adults, Jane Healy’s argument put forward in her 1990 book Endangered Minds, and expanded in the 1998 book, Failure to Connect.
Healy argues that children’s increasing exposure to computers has created a “toxic environment” that leads to patterns of “disorganized thinking” and “mental restlessness” akin to ADHD.
While I will concede the Net is rife with “toxic content” and I often do agree with what Carr writes, I am not willing to agree with him that the Internet is ruining our ability to think or that Google is making us stupid. In the past two years since the Atlantic Monthly article was published I have read approximately 100 books, hundreds of full articles from peer reviewed journals and my usual fair of daily Blog posts. Approximately 10 months ago I started tracking all my my reading with a plugin called Now Reading and so far I have read 41 books have another 5 books that I am currently reading and have plans to read approximately 13 more books–no concentration drift here.
There are some parts of Carr’s article I do agree with. I also find my concentration starting to drift after two or three pages or sometimes even after two or three paragraphs, but I will attribute this drift to the quality or type of the content that I am reading. If the book, article or Blog is well written and the author genuinely has something valuable to say, there is no problem staying engaged.
There is also a style of academic writing that is of such “high quality” that I find myself curling up with a good dictionary rather than a “good book”. With this type of writing, the chances of even getting engaged are preempted by repeated trips to dictionary.com or a traditional Websters and the need to determine if the author is referring to the connotative or denotative meaning of a word.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of an Internet infused world is the immense volume of available information. For example, many people have already commented on Carr’s article in the Blogosphere and most will simply repeat the highlights or provide a basic review-some will even review the reviews, so staying engaged while wading through all the chaff can be challenging.
Google or the Internet in general won’t make you stupid if you use it wisely to sort through all the chaff. However, if you rely solely on the first hits you find with Google then you are just being stupid because Google should only be used as a starting point (just as wikipedia). You can’t blame Google and the Internet for one’s lack of discipline and discernment.