There's Stupidity Somewhere Here, But It's Not Coming From Google…

from the provocative-titles dept

Matt Asay writes about Nick Carr’s article in the July issue of The Atlantic, “Is Google making us stupid?” I’m not so sure that you can make such a generalization, but something certainly seems to be messing with Nick Carr’s reasoning ability. With such a provocative title, I was expecting a little more evidence with a lot less storytelling and speculation — but I was seriously disappointed.

There are some valid concerns nested in there, but the tone is attention-seeking and hyperbolic. More importantly, Carr seems to be jumping to the wrong conclusions, as appears to be typical. In the article, Carr writes:

[S]cholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information. They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.

I’m sorry, but how is this “chilling” (as Radar Online claims)? Carr doesn’t explain why skimming is problematic, aside from worrying that we’re becoming “mere decoders of information,” like computers. Did paper cause people to become mere transmitters of information? We aren’t deprived of our ability to reflect or think deeply by using Google’s search engine or by skimming through blog posts.

I don’t understand why this is even considered a problem. I skim a ton of stuff online and often make quick judgments as to whether or not its worth my time. There’s a lot of crap in the long tail. But there are also a lot of worthwhile things. Skimming is human filtering, it’s a necessary and useful part of processing the vast amount of information available online. I’m not going to read everything I find on the web. Most articles I will scan quickly, but there are many other things that I read in detail and at length.

What’s wrong with skimming?

And then there’s Matt’s attack on Twitter:

Speaking of Twitter, am I the only one who views it as further evidence of a soundbite culture that struggles even to think beyond 140-character blips?

Come on! It’s a medium! What about the famous quote? “I’ve written you a long letter because I haven’t had time to write a short one.” (paraphrased – usually attributed to Mark Twain, but it appears it may be Blaise Pascal). It’s harder to be concise. Regardless, Twitter is a medium, it’s micro-blogging. Just because you make use of a different medium doesn’t mean that it controls your thinking or prevents you from using other mediums. Did telegrams make people stupid? I use the Internet to update my Facebook status and to write 2500 word emails to stay in touch with close friends.

Twitter doesn’t make people stupid.

Nor does Google or Wikipedia or anything else. People are just stupid irrespective of technology. Myself included. I don’t do stupid things because of technology, I do stupid things because sometimes I do stupid things. We may see stupidity manifested in different ways on different mediums, but I have a hard time believing that the medium is to blame.

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Comments on “There's Stupidity Somewhere Here, But It's Not Coming From Google…”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I skimmed text books as well. Isn’t that the only reasonable way to find what you need? I don’t need the ENTIRE history of the world, so I scan to the part I’m interested in and read that. What about that doesn’t make sense? I would be more worried that someone would spend the time to read an entire volume of work, wasting hours if not days, when they only needed a page worth of information.

Anonymous Coward says:

Its like Guns

Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. If you really want to kill someone, and you don’t have a gun you WILL find another way.

In that crappy analogy guns are a medium of death. Could easily have been a knife, stick, or fists.

As you say, the tone is attention-grabbing. Carr just needs some attention. Probably to feed the ads on the page.

Clark says:

Re: Carr might be right

Well, you might percieve that becuase now information is more readily available to you. Instead of trudging off to the library to research what happened to Rome, you can hop online in the comfort of your home and read about it. You are still learning, the question is are you motivated to learn?

As for the article, I was turned off in the first paragraph where he states that he, along with friends (one of whom was a lit major) no longer can read long articles. Well, his article was 4 pages long! If thats not irony…

But I find that notion just plain stupid. I just finished reading a 700 page book a little while back, and was held in rapture almost the entire time. I still enjoy picking up a good book and reading all the way through, and the bigger the book, the bigger the sense of accomplishment. Carr is just getting lazy and falling into the old trap of instant satisfaction.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Carr might be right

Knowing facts is an inappropriate measure of “smart” or “dumb.” Anyone can know facts, and being able to memorize an encyclopedia doesn’t mean you can do anything useful with the information. The real key is the ability to process and analyze information. The Internet has very little to do with that: it can get you loads of facts, but that won’t make you smarter or dumber in itself.

Blaise Alleyne (profile) says:

Re: eh?


It has the tone of Mike.

I’ll take that as a compliment. 🙂

I did not know the Vatican had a web page, although I should have assumed.

The Vatican actually has a very comprehensive web page.

There’s an entertaining interview I found from Robert Scoble back in the fall with Sister Judith Zoeblein, the nun responsible for the Vatican’s website. She’s asked questions about Second Life (ha.ha. get it?) and “which operating system God uses.” People are shocked to see a nun in I.T., nevermind actually giving a talk at a tech conference (they caught her in the hall during the conference).

Interview with Sister Judith Zoebelein

Malthusan says:


Asay is making the point that years of getting info from the web has reduced his ability to read (and therefore, according to him, think) deeply. There is something to be said for being able to read deeply, to be able to focus and concentrate on an extended piece of writing, to hold a sustained chain of ideas and arguments in one’s head long enough to see the sense of them, the connections between them that are not readily apparent from a mere idle perusal of topic sentences. The same can be said for being able to focus and concentrate long enough to compose an extended piece of writing. These are skills that take discipline and work, and the web and its fare are, by their very nature, antithetical to it.

Blaise’s response illustrates Asay’s point perfectly — skim the surface without taking the time or making an effort to delve deeply. Asay isn’t blaming the medium for making him stupid; he’s making the point that the nature of the medium encourages a particular way of ingesting information, and that browsing or skimming short bursts of information that link to other short bursts of information is not the same as a sustained study of a particular work. If Blaise had read carefully (deeply maybe?) for comprehension rather than skimming the article and reacting immediately because someone has taken what he perceived to be a pot-shot against his chosen medium, he might see that Asay actually has a point. Of course, if one has never taken the time to develop the skill of deep reading and thinking, then it is to be expected that one would not know such a skill existed or might be useful.

Blaise Alleyne (profile) says:

Re: Um...

Asay may not be “blaming the medium for making him stupid” directly, but by building on an article titled “Is Google making us stupid?” he is making it implicitly. Asay suggests that using a service like Twitter has implications beyond the medium. He writes:

We really don’t want to think like Google. We don’t want to speak like Twitter. We don’t want to converse like e-mail. And yet we increasingly do, as the Internet reshapes the world in its image.

My point is that using Twitter doesn’t make us speak like Twitter. We may “tweet” (hate that word), but on Twitter. Take the “txt spk” theme at Techdirt for example. Shortened SMS messages don’t make kids stupid or impair their ability to write prose, and 140 character message on Twitter don’t make its users stupid or unable to read books.

Sure, “the nature of the medium encourages a particular way of ingesting information” but I don’t believe it necessarily spreads beyond the medium (or “makes us stupid”). When in Rome, do as the Romans do… When on Twitter, you ingest information in a certain way. Yes, that is very different from the sustained study of a particular work. But how does ingesting information on Twitter impair your ability to study a particular work in depth off-line or on some other medium?

Twitter isn’t for in-depth study. That doesn’t mean it impairs our ability to study in-depth.

Asay’s observation has no real connection to the “makes us stupid” thesis because neither Asay or Carr can explain how skimming on one medium impairs one’s ability to study in-depth on another (or on the same, for that matter).

anne (profile) says:

I skim-read through JSTOR. My public library system allows only two JSTOR users online at one time, and that includes in-library and remote users, so I skim and save articles to read later. This library system serves millions of people, and it’s awfully rude to tie up the system while I peruse and read every single article from start to finish.

Also, opening and reading a PDF file online slows down my computer. I end up with much better results by saving a file as a download and reading the document later. I also may not have an immediate need for that file – as a researcher, I often find documents that I don’t need at that moment, but which will prove to be useful later on. Did any of these brilliant researchers think about these possibilities before they jumped to stupid conclusions?

Mike says:

While I agree with this article I would argue that a large majority of todays people simply don’t think!! One example comes to mind: I was helping my son with a physics project building a tribuchet for one of his final classes before graduatating from High School. He had a few of his classmates over helping him as well. They were discussing some of the final projects and papers that were due in preperation for the big day. One of them made a comment that they had NEVER really written a paper the whole time that they had been in school, and had copied most of the information from various articles without much thought or desire to learn about the subject and had quickly pieced together their papers throughout the years. The others that were arround quickly agreed that they had done the same thing when it had come to their papers and projects. They also indicated that they had done the very same thing with the project that they were currently working on, and had copied the plans directly from the internet. There was no reason for them to think, it was already done before and plans and directions fully laid out for them. They just needed to find it and build it. At one point in the project they needed to figure out how to build the sling because they had forgotton to print that out with the other plans and asked if they could go into the house to look it up on the internet. I didn’t let them and told them that they would have to figure it out.

While I know it is human nature to sift through and discard information it is different when you sit and think and work something out without the aid of a calculator and or giant internet library. I also know that it is human nature to usually take the easiest route. Why reinvent something if it has already been done for you?

Necessity Breeds Invention. who knows what they would have come up with if they didn’t have exact plans on how to build the tribuchet.

I am an avid reader and sift though great amounts of information. I read blogs, I read news and much of that information I do skim over. But, I also read extensivily from other sources and try to actually expand my understanding and knowledge.

I wouldn’t say that the internet makes us stupid.. it makes us lazy.. like many comments before it isn’t guns that kill people it is people that kill people. The internet doesn’t make us stupid.. it makes us lazy. I wouldn’t shoot the mediums such as twitter, google facebook, YouTube etc. I think they are all very helpfull and if used right with some proper thought and inguinuity mankind could solve many of the issues it is facing. Think about what all of the famous inverntors did with what little resources they had.

Think about all of the resources we have today at our fingertips!! Use the information! Piece it together.. skim all you want, research, think! Use the information as a stepping block and not as crutch.

amalyn (user link) says:

Filtering and switching

I agree that the headline and tone of the article on the surface seem to be quick to point the finger, resulting in the majority who are skimming jumping to the conclusion that there is not a very valid point being made.

However, it addresses a much deeper issue. The problem that Carr is addressing is that over time, it seems harder to switch between modes of filtering information.

Being able to skim text to discern whether it is worth reading is a valuable skill – but so is being able to then switch modes of thinking/focus in order to be able to engage in actually reading the text and comprehending it.

There is value in being able to skim and decode – but our ability to analyze, ruminate, debate, create is equally important. A script can skim and decode information, categorize it, put it in nice little piles – but it does not mean that the script understands the meaning of the information it has processed, or can understand it in context.

There is a point at which it is not laziness, but a change in how the brain deals with stimulus. Is it reversible? I don’t think we’ll know until unplugged / brain deprogramming retreats become common place over the next decade, when more people realize that they are not able to focus or deal with the world in the same way as before.

I don’t view it as necessarily good or bad – but I do feel it is the beginning of a fundamental shift in culture. Being able to engage with a book, or a conversation, or a lecture or watch a meteor shower are things that leave us with ideas that can lead us to new concepts, artwork, design, data structures, programming… Click click click culture of endless link following and mindless browsing leaves thoughts fleeting and dashing off, half-finished before we can really grasp what it is that we are thinking – this has been a long time coming, widely available broadband net access has just spread up the process for a lot of people.

Blaise Alleyne (profile) says:

Re: Filtering and switching

Carr certainly has some valid points, like many of those you highlighted and expanded on. It just doesn’t add up to the conclusion he’s trying to make, which is what my focus was on.

He’s “haunted,” worried that “own intelligence that [may] flatten into artificial intelligence.” He calls it “unsettling” that Google is apparently replacing our intelligence with artificial intelligence, when that’s not what’s happening at all.

I think he has many interesting observations about how we ingest information in various mediums, especially on the Internet, but the article is premised on these observations being somehow “unsettling.”

I think they’re interesting, but I don’t see where the problem is. I don’t understand how this “makes us stupid” or is something to be concerned about or “haunted” by. Especially, considering that few people would make similar corollary claims about analog technologies (which Carr does admit on page four, when he tells us we “should be skeptical of [his] skepticism” for that very reason).

peggy (profile) says:

great analysis

I agree. Blaming the medium is just another way we avoid looking at ourselves. The medium,the gun,the TV, the oil companies, the weather. We sit there and blame something else for our inability to take action, to solve. We would rather complain and blame then analize and correct. It is hard to understand some of the problems that we have to deal with today but the only way is to study them one by one and learn what the problem is and then devise a correction. It is possible if you break things down to the smallest elements. But trying to get people to get beyond “oh, its always been that way” is major.

Yeoman (user link) says:

Stating The Obvious

Of course people skim read – there’s so much information online that savvy users of these research databases look for the important stuff and then move on. To be honest, the important stuff is normally in the first couple of pages anyway and the rest is just exposition, so for a basic understanding of a subject all you have to do is skim!

Maybe we aren’t ‘scholars’ like we were before the internet but with all the answers at our fingertips (for better or worse) we don’t need to be!

Killer_Tofu (profile) says:

Re Blaise #17

I suppose it would be a compliment.
Not really intended as compliment or insult.
Usually from the RSS though I can tell if the article is written by Mike or Tim (or somebody else but I tend to see other’s articles less often so it makes them harder to distinguish). I actually thought this was written by Mike until I checked it.

Thank you for pointing out the interview. I shall have to listen to it soon. (it is blocked at my current location)

oregonnerd says:

Mediums to blame

A medium purveys content, and most of the commenters Mike cited at least contribute to the medium–which actually extends from micro comments to blogs to hackers. The “micro comment” bit is really dated and was a feature a long time ago; as I recall anything over a “wow” or something similarly sophisticated was frowned upon (like the one ISP that read all e-mails…).

To confuse medium with information would seem inexcusable. I can’t even argue with Mike’s points, which is just… terrible.

some random guy says:

abstracts / book liner notes

The whole reason technical papers have abstracts is to help you quickly decide whether they are relevant without reading the whole bloody thing. Abstracts, keywords, skimming, Google — it’s all about being more effective at finding what you need, when you need it. Smarter, not dumber.

On the other side of the coin: remember McLuhan, and “the medium is the message”. The medium used to express yourself DOES change the way that you think. But that’s an issue orthogonal to the process of skimming.

Paul Jardine says:

Enough is good enough

“If I have seen far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”. I think that was Isaac Newton who said that and it makes a point. Human knowledge is constantly built on top of information that someone else already worked out or produced. It has been going on since time immemorial. The internet merely gives access to the combined human knowledge to the masses, in a way we have never had before. Not everyone will ‘see further’, many will just use the knowledge that already exists. There is nothing inherently wrong in that, just that in the past access to the knowledge has been limited.

william fischer (user link) says:


I’ve been working on a book for the last year on the impacts of having pervasive search engines, GoogleFried. Although the neurology is disputed (with some interesting fMRI data points towards Carr’s thesis), I think he is just scratching the surface in the larger sociological issues. Skimming might seem harmless, but “confirmation bias” can have profound implications and skimming definitely leads to more of it. Some other areas:

Displacing Editors: How Search Algorithms tell you what’s relevant.
The self-reinforcing nature of relevance. The multi-billion dollar “relevance” business. How companies and individuals “game” Google. Cheating Wikipedia and other attempts to modify history. What happens to information deemed “less relevant” and how this impacts our understanding of history and the world around us.

Confirmation Bias – The Rise of Conspiracy Theories on Steroids
How the traditional gate-keepers of “knowledge “ are being displaced by algorithms. How sophisticated search tools make it too easy to reinforce personal theories.

Super Cyranos and Sherlocks: How Search Tools even Changes our Sex Lives
How googling “pick-up” lines and having the ability to feign broad polymathic abilities countered with the democratization of data which brings sophisticated background research tools to the masses will change both our ability to create a new persona or to escape an old one. How Search will change how we identify ourselves, present ourselves, and forever change our relationships. Also the development of virtual worlds.


Peter Blaise (profile) says:


“… attention-seeking and hyperbolic …” YES! Like so many headlines on the covers of newspapers, magazines, and the front pages of web sites: “Wikipedia/the Internet/Google/Motherhood: blessing, or the most evil plot in the world? … exclusive story inside, read on …”.

These are stories written from hunger — the author wants to get paid, and there is no editor, and the goal, after all, is to keep the advertisements from bumping into each other — you have to have something in between or they look too crowded!

Remember, these are vehicles for advertising, and the advertisers are their real audience and target, NOT the reader.

None of these writers wants your MIND, they want your EYEBALLS so they can turn over your WALLET to the advertisers for MONEY.

I imagine that a study of pre-historic or pre-literate societies would reveal the same scanning — you look out of the cave and scan, you study an animal in the distance, but ignore the familiar or uninteresting nearby because there’s no food nearby, you look back in the cave to get a weapon to catch that animal.

“… Scanning …” is a human survival tactic, keeping us able to pay attention to emergent situations as we look for value, preventing us from getting lost against our own self interest in things that do not benefit us.

More useful would have been a report from those authors if they had gone back to look at the specific content in question, the content that was skimmed, and read it themselves to report on it — hey, it’s crap … or … it’s not germane to their research … no wonder the readers skimmed it! Or, as already noted, “Hey, it’s hard to read anything online since the computer screen only shows 1/2 a page, and it’s slow, so why not print and read on paper because paper’s better for that, and use the computer for what it’s best for — searching, sorting, selecting, and skimming! “Good readers know how to skim” would have been an alternative headline if the writers weren’t so bent on their own trajectory.

“… linkbait …” — great term, exactly what such headline grabbers are after: making the advertisements look properly spaced apart from each other. “Filler”. Same here on TechDirt? Maybe. We all have ulterior motive$.

“… over time, it seems harder to switch between modes of filtering inform …” No, not really. Over time IN ONE PLACE it seems harder to find value, so we tend to leave. Some people watch TV for entertainment and distraction from the other worries of the day. Some people watch TV to catch up on the news. It’s not TV, it’s how the person uses TV. Same with the Internet. Some people use it for one reason, some for another. The report writers did not audit the users to first see what was their purpose in using the Internet, so their resulting report is bogus, as expected.

“… a large majority of today’s people simply don’t think …” What does “today” have to do with it? Someone else’s ability to think is not even accessible let alone measurable by another. YOU may think I’m thoughtless, but maybe I’m solving my family’s life-long problems in my head and you’re waay less interesting to me now? Rephrase that as “other people’s thoughts still inaccessible to others”. Duh!

I skimmed the rest of everyone’s comments, thanks all … nothing personal, I’m just not as interested here as I am interested in spending time elsewhere. Bye!


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