June 09, 2008

Nick Carr: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", and Man vs. Machine

Nick Carr has an essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", where he applies a certain effects-of-tech-on-humans framework to Google. I know Nick is a very smart and learned man, so I read his thoughts carefully. I suspect there will be a certain amount of noise in reaction to what he wrote, as some with less regard for him will take away a superficial impression and go into standard techno-utopian rants against that ("Luddite!" is a tip-off you're reading one of these).

However, I'll try to outline what I found unsatisfying, by talking a bit about some of the meta-issues (I have to spell out I'm deliberately doing this, otherwise the widely-varying contexts tend to make it look like I'm *only* talking about myself).

When I read articles such as the above, I'm very aware that there is indeed a science/humanities "Two Cultures" divide. And I'm on one side of it (science) while many pundits are on the other (humanities). One basic way to tell the difference is essentially when science types can extend "themselves" through technology, they think "This is cool! Wonderful! Great! More!", while humanities types angst about "How has the basic nature of our essential souls been corrupted?". Note this angst-ing effect generally applies only to technology they haven't grown up with - for example, you don't see a lot of articles bemoaning how the telephone disembodies us into ghostly vocal presences. Of course, the more intelligent humanities types, like Nick, know this history, and it's clear especially towards the end of his piece. But they write the angst-filled articles all the same.

To demonstrate, here's a paragraph shot through with those themes (my interpolations are in the brackets):

Still, their easy assumption that we'd all "be better off" if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling [tech: "Neat!", lib-arts: "Scary!"]. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. [tech: "Yeah!", lib-arts: "My soul!"]. In Google's world, the world we enter when we go online, there's little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. [tech: "Math rules!", lib-arts: "Poetry rules!"]. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive. [tech: "Humans are machines!". lib-arts: "Humans are divine!"]

So I've often wished there was more support for what I call "technology-positive social criticism". By which I mean that criticism of techo-hype and marketing hucksters often seems to end up couched in a certain type of fogeyism (which alienates tech types) because there's no other power-center supporting that criticism. I sometimes don't want to alienate those who write in this fogeyist idiom. But it's a struggle.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on June 09, 2008 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Did you see today's article in the Guardian? This Seth Finkelstein guy seems fairly sane, by most modern standards anyway. And no mention of Wikitruth.info... Now there's someone I wouldn't mind being mistaken for! c > cunwapquc? 03:11, 28 September 2006 (UTC)


Posted by: the zak at June 10, 2008 03:21 AM

Seth please clarify what a "power center" might be in regard to the criticism of techo-hype. Alan

Posted by: Alan at June 10, 2008 01:18 PM

Alan: I mean an organization or institution that provides the criticism with the necessary backing to be heard. For example, how many people, of what prominence, are going to read Nick Carr's article, compared to this blog post?

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at June 10, 2008 02:00 PM

Seth, I see your point but I don't think Nick's passage here is that bad. People quick to yell "luddite!" are probably beyond reasoning with anyway. Someday they'll grow up and learn to listen to people outside their little bubble. Working towards educating people in that regard is a better route than trying to appease them with softer, more tech-positive criticism (and in so doing water down one's writing so much as to be ineffective).

Furthermore, and getting back to Nick's original point, those readers you're worried about probably won't bother to read his article anyway.

Posted by: Kevin Arthur at June 11, 2008 01:37 AM

My sense is that Carr wanted to substitute in "blogs" or "twitter" for "Google" in the title but feared the old arguments that would dredge up.

It's hard to really pin down a Google culture. You use it or you don't; big deal. Yes, it's some ways it's profound as the culture of timepieces, but it's not a *subculture*-- the way that Facebook or the blogosphere or the twittersphere is.

There are people who flit from piece to piece and end up saying something profoundly stupid; and others who weave together what they learn and say something intelligent. It would be nice to have somebody investigate that.

The second part of the title is a stretch as well. Nowhere in the article does Carr use the word "stupid" or even "dumb." His thesis is that "we" are no longer deep reading, and Maryann Wolf says that deep reading equals deep thinking, therefore we are not deep thinking, which we are presume is equivalent to intelligence.

But wait-- is it *possible* that some people have stopped deep reading, because the blog evangelists tell us that journalists are lazy and/or corrupted? Or they may be right, that conventional journalism is hackneyed, overwrought, and should be reduced to a derivative paragraph.

Well, to borrow a book title, it doesn't matter. Carr has mounted the tech-hip-curmudgeon horse, and he's going to ride it into the sunset.

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at June 11, 2008 02:09 AM

I'd have to agree that it would be very nice to see more criticism of the hype and hucksters within tech--and boy! is there a whole lot of it! I'm always amazed how, if one mentions the importance of human interaction over, say, monitoring a twitter stream, that fingers are pointed. Then again, one person's ambitious go-getter is another person's workaholic. Even in those dialogues there is little balance or middle ground.

Posted by: Tish Grier at June 12, 2008 10:57 AM