On Google and our brains. Smart questions. And Carr’s disappointing answers.
It’s taken me a while to get around to Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? in the July/August Atlantic, and I have no excuse. For all its assertion that we need to be immersed in narrative and longer stretches of prose, at 4,000 words, it’s not even that lengthy an article! In it Carr says:
The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.” [...]
The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.
The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.
Fine. Good. So? That’s bad? He suggests it is bad, though he never really fleshes out the argument.
I argue, emphatically, it’s not!
Intelligence is contextual. Technology changes the context. Google is the clearest expression of our current technology (technology having shifted quickly from expressing itself mainly through hardware to software to expressing itself today most manifestly through the network). Now that the paradigm has shifted, we had better get on with the business of adapting to it. Good that Carr’s found our brains are equipped to do that!
I hope the following analogy might prove useful…
Scott Wallace, a writer for National Geographic, was a guest on Talk of the Nation Tuesday. He spoke about the last of the Amazon jungle’s so-called “uncontacted tribes.”
You will remember they made news recently when they aimed their bows and arrows up at the airplane flying overhead as a Brazilian government Indian affairs team shot this photograph documenting their existence.
During the radio show, a caller couldn’t understand why those primitive tribesmen were “at least 1,000 or more years behind” the rest of us and hadn’t “technologically evolved.”
To presume that we understand what their level of evolving, of evolvement or evolution is, I think, is a little bit of a conceit. After all, these people are perfectly adapted to the rainforest. They understand how to live in one of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They have evolved agriculture. They have tools. They have weapons. They know how to function in that environment.
And in fact, the West, we who are so technologically advanced, we westerners still do not know how to develop the Amazon without destroying it. And those people have lived in there for thousands of years, basically in harmony with the environment. So, you know, for – that’s just one little way of looking at that question.
Intelligence is contextual to the environment you’re in. For a more academic look at intelligence, IQ, and the brain I highly recommend this James Flynn speech at the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA) from December 2007. The speech is amazing!
Flynn is the social scientist widely known for his discovery of the Flynn effect, the continued year-on-year rise of IQ scores in all parts of the world. He explains that and much more in his highly accessible talk. Flynn believes the brain is a muscle and the way to improve it is to exercise it.
If Carr’s suggestion is that we’re not getting that exercise — that we’re being dumbed down because our minds are becoming lazy as the computer does the work for us — I expect the researchers will have a field day with that one and I look forward to it!
Yes, these technological changes have far-reaching implications. Unfortunately, I didn’t see those implications very well explored in Carr’s piece. John Battelle points to Steven Johnson who wrote the book documenting that everything from movies to music video to video games has faster more complex narratives to keep our minds more exercised than ever.
Myself, I don’t want the focus Carr praises. The old paradigm privileged focus. Memorization was key. I want my machines to do that for me. The new paradigm means I can let my mind wander. It might privilege pattern recognition. How things relate to one another. Or the mix. Or something altogether different and yet to be discovered.
There will be winners and losers just as there always have been. Though they’ll likely now be different than before. But every indication I see is that people, young people especially, are every bit as smart and creative and alive and engaged as they ever were — though perhaps now more pointillist or impressionist in their intellectual style as compared to their Renaissance-men parents.
Out of paradigm shifts comes wreckage. And there well may be issues here that I’m not seeing. Unfortunately, Carr didn’t show them to me. So I’m left believing it’s a bold new world out there. And to that I can only say, bring it on!