Did The Automobile Dehumanize Walking? No? Then Does Google Dehumanize Intelligence?

from the no dept

Kevin sent over one of Nick Carr’s latest ramblings, attacking Google and its VP Marissa Mayer for saying: “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can find out.” That statement is a little too bland to actually catch on, but is hardly a new idea. In fact, we’ve argued that this is the case for many years. If you have regular access to a vast computer network that lets you find stuff, you can actually have your biological brain focus on more important things, rather than cramming it with things you can easily find out. In fact, with various studies suggesting the real key to intelligence is better forgetting rather than better remembering, you could argue that not having to remember certain things can be of great benefit.

But not to Nick Carr, apparently. To him, this means that people are becoming “intellectually dehumanized.” And this is a bad, bad thing:

Truth is self-created through labor, through the hard, inefficient, unscripted work of the mind, through the indirection of dream and reverie. What matters is what cannot be rendered as code. Google can give you everything but meaning.

But this presupposes all sorts of incorrect things — such as the idea that what information you don’t store in your brain can’t be used for sussing out meaning. It reminds me of the people who insisted, years ago, that calculators would destroy everyone’s ability to do basic math, and that this would inevitably lead to the downfall of society. Sure, I may not totally remember my times tables, but being able to quickly use a calculator to figure out something isn’t really a problem at all. And, much more importantly, it means that I can do much more complex mathematical calculations as well. The same is true of Google. Sure, we may not remember little bits of information here or there, but we can more easily bring together a much, much, much larger corpus of information, and synthesize that in a useful way in our brains. There is no rule that you should only use what’s stored directly in your mind to think about things.

The calculator didn’t dehumanize math. The automobile didn’t dehumanize walking. And Google, most certainly, has not dehumanized intelligence. It’s only enabled it to do much, much more.

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Comments on “Did The Automobile Dehumanize Walking? No? Then Does Google Dehumanize Intelligence?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Also, the automobile causes pollution which is bad for the environment. Search engines, likewise, take up electricity which causes pollution which is bad for the environment.

Wait, taking paper to create books destroys trees and I think may even cost more energy than the electricity required to read something on the screen?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Except that in the case of walking, transportation itself IS exercise so the time that was freed up because we walk less and drive more is time that’s being taken away from exercise because had we walked more to transport from one place to another we would also exercise more since walking and exercising are one and the same.

However, in the case of searching for information, searching for information is not the same as learning information so yes, anything that makes us find information faster could very well help us learn information faster since it’s less time searching and more time learning.

But you can’t say that less time walking = more time exercising since walking = exercising.

TW2000 says:


I honestly believe we are heading into another Dark Ages. common sense has completely left most of the governments and this disease is trickling down to the people. I hope my children will see the new renaissance and not have to live in fear of the retards in power that make laws for things they do not understand and do not want to take the time understand.

Michael (profile) says:

I can see a bit of a point

In the event of a disconnection from these sources of information, the guy that can remember these things is pretty important. Not that I am planning of the apocalypse like TW2000, but if some disaster should shut down all of our electricity producing equipment, I really hope someone retains the knowledge of how to fix one.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

One wonders, did Nick Carr pull those Richard Poirier quotes out of his memory verbatim?

Or, perhaps, did he dig out the Poirier book he remembered tucking away on his shelf? Did he – gasp – simply Google the quote he was looking for?

Did he find it convenient that Barnes & Noble supplied him with a link directly to a page of information about the book, where it can also be purchased? Or would he have preferred copy out the ISBN so readers can go find it in their local library? (maybe he has the ISBN memorized too? after all, looking it up in the liner notes would be rather un-human of him)

Of course, I suppose it’s different if you’re looking stuff up in books, right? After all, one would never find a critical analysis like Poirier’s online. The only information available online is raw facts with no context or opinion – there are no influential voices, no intelligent observers providing commentary and opinion: just pure data, processable only by robots like Mayer. I just checked, and there is not a single critique of Robert Frost’s poetry available anywhere online! I just searched “Richard Poirier” in Google and got zero results – that knowledge only exists in books and peoples’ memories! Now I totally get Nick’s point!

John Doe says:

I never understood times tables...

I am very good at doing math in my head and never learned nor understood times tables. I don’t understand their purpose other than maybe memorization. I did not memorize them as I can actually do the math as needed without trying to recall multiplication tables.

Good thing too, as I have a terrible memory. Now I find out that I don’t need a memory. Yeah for me. 🙂

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: cars suck

“I don’t think search engines making anyone dumber, but cars cause all kinds of problems, including yes, less exercise. The car analogy is flawed. Cars really do dehumanize people.”

Nina, I really like your contributions here thus far, so I really, really, REALLY hope that was a failed attempt at satire. I’m cringing at the thought that yet another person will have revealed themselves as a mouthpiece for anti-auto nonsense.

The solution to cars reducing how much exercise we get is not to blame the car, but the person who drives it unnecessarily.

The solution to cars causing polution is not to ditch cars, but to make them such that they don’t pollute.

Cars are wonderful things that allow many people to do many things they would otherwise be unable to do. There are many people on this Earth that do TOO much walking, and would kill for access to a car and the benefits it brings. Let’s not let over-zealousness get a hold of us….

Chris-Mouse (profile) says:

This is nothing new.

People have been complaining about every new technology that assists the human mind. In the 1970s, people complained that calculators would reduce the ability to do basic math. Plato complained that writing would reduce the ability to memorize information. the funny thing is, all those warnings were exactly right, and it doesn’t matter.

I don’t bother doing multi-digit math in my head anymore. I do the algebra needed to define the equations I need, then plug the numbers into the calculator. Similarly, I don’t remember information anymore, I look it up. Online search engines mean I don’t have to physically go to where the books are located in order to look up the information.

Every time there’s been a new technology to assist the mind it has indeed caused some mental skill to atrophy. That’s mostly because that skill is no longer needed. The mind is now free to do other things while the mechanical assistant takes on the routine drudgery that used to require a mind.

Isambard Morgensterun says:

Who said Google could give you meaning in the first place? To my knowledge its never been advertised as a religious or philosophical treatise, nor as a replacement for meaningful activities such as raising a family or creating art.

I might agree that the things that matter cannot be rendered as code, but who said that Google was trying to be one of these profound things that matter? It’s not trying to replace the important things in life, its trying to get you information very fast. That’s all. It’s a more efficient library. And some of these things in this library just happen to be profound texts that many humans feel can help you find that Truth. You still have to read and study them.

To deny Google is to deny written culture, since its only an expansion of that. If we want to have to painstakingly memorize all that is important then we should do it completely and return to an oral culture.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well said. If anything, these complaints would apply more to a service like Wolfram Alpha – at least that actually does claim to “compute” “truth” in some sense. You could definitely make the argument that Wolfram Alpha will never fully replace the human ability to sort information – but that argument is an old one that requires some actual insight and philosophy: it won’t garner sensationalist columns full of florid prose like this one, so it’s not really Carr’s bag.

Anonymous Coward says:

In actuality search engines make you smarter. You spend less time searching for information and more time learning information and searching for information without a search engine is such a burden that you probably won’t bother to search for a lot of information in the first place without a search engine and hence you will never learn it.

fairuse (profile) says:

real key to intelligence is better forgetting rather than better remembering

I will read the article after this comment. I find most people I make this statement to are puzzled by it, “You have to learn to dump things that clutter your thinking.”. It is something I do easily and it has some negative as well as positive social side effects. Mostly due to the content that gets dumped; holidays, birth dates, what happened in 1983, what world disaster happened when and so on. Sort of things my calendar or google can tell me if and when needed. In a technical area anything Mac Help stores I don’t, unless it is important to task at hand.

kfork (profile) says:

Search engines are good, to a certain extent.

Search engines are good, to a certain extent.
Even if you have a car, you do walk, you walk upto your bath or to your kitchen etc. With search engine, does your brain do that little “walking”?

Google is bad for THE OTHER reason, the way it tries to monopolize and “sells” personal data, luckily we have better and sane search engines like http://ixquick.com/
Out of topic but ONE search engine is bad, three or four equally competing are good. Why? The title of this topic could have been then “Did The Automobile Dehumanize Walking? No? Then Does SE Dehumanize Intelligence?”
Note : its *Automobile* Generic! but Google a TM ;/

Karl (user link) says:

Somewhat true, if you think "truth" = "meaning"

Actually, I’ve always agreed a little bit with Nick Carr’s curmudgeonly wisdom, but you have to remember he’s speaking about something completely different from Google’s VP.

Carr’s basic premise is this: “A glut of information devalues meaning.” In some sense, it’s true. An example: In math class, you didn’t just learn what the value of pi is, you were taught (at least one) method of figuring this out. Your average Joe will never know about these proofs, so he’ll be less “knowledgeable” than a math major. The number pi will simply have less meaning to this Joe than to a math major.

Of course, if by “truth” you mean “factual,” then his argument totally falls apart. Really, he’s not complaining about the death of knowledge; he’s complaining about the death of poetry.

But even here he’s off the mark, for that Joe would never have learned that “meaning” anyway.

What I think is more truthful is Sturgeon’s Revelation: 90% of everything is crud. This has always been true, but without artificial “information gatekeepers,” that 90% is now out in the open for everyone to see, and it’s a lot less convenient to wade through it.

But as time goes on, we become our own gatekeepers (or choose our own). Compare the internet today with the internet ten years ago (think: AOL). On average, which do you think has better writing?

kfork (profile) says:

Ten years ago Internet was much better

Ten years ago Internet was much better. It was not just Google+Facebook+Twitter. Sites were “individual”, sites were devoid of slavish icons (of FB, Twt etc)

There were plenty of chat rooms, plenty of email providers, and individual sites on geocities, tripod etc rather than cookie-cutter same-same looking blogs.

Social exchange, exchange of fun, and exchange of knowledge was no less. Websites did not belong to monopolistic giants but belonged to all.

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Ten years ago Internet was much better

You mean, the Internet was better looking? I guess I’m trying to say that it seems like your problem is with design and ownership, which was the same them. One company owned Geocities, which was like Facebook for the HTML inclined, and it was IRC and chat rooms instead of Twitter.

Sure, blogs today look very similar, but I think it beats the weird, crazy sites that only someone new to HTML could love (or read) and the availability of the look-alike sites means that even people who can’t code a website can still take part in the social exchange, the exchange of fun, and the exchange of knowledge.

kfork (profile) says:

Re: Re: Ten years ago Internet was much better

No I do not mean just better looking but better functioning too. Geocities changed hands but there were similar other services in plenty. What I mean is now internet is a monopoly of 2 or 3 giants and all sites follow those slavishly (see the omnipresent FB and Twitter icons).

Geocities or similar sites did not actually need html knowledge and even if they did there were as many sites as there are cookie-cutter blogs today. People who could not code were still there at that time and much independently rather than having to “expose” their data to large business merchants like Google.

“IRC and chat rooms instead of Twitter.” – Wrong. It was not ONE IRC and chat room. There were innumerable and plenty of chat providers as compared to one or three major players now.

You said “it seems like your problem” – actually it is not my problem BUT the problem of the current gen that they/you do not understand how the monopoly is killing the variation and FREEDOM that net actually was. I only hope that the current trend dies by following laws of nature and the net that was returns.

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Ten years ago Internet was much better

You seem to assuming that I wasn’t there as well. I was there. I had a Geocities page and a surprisingly low IRC number. I just disagree with you.

I believe that the Internet had a monopoly of giants that all of the others followed slavishly then, as well. (The name changes but the song’s the same.) There are still innumerable chat providers, and you can hardly complain that having a few major players is a problem for everyone, when it’s everyone’s choice of whom to patronize.

People are still blogging today without exposing their information to Google, because Google offers just one of many blogging platforms. A WordPress blog is just about the easiest thing in the world to throw up on your own piece of Internet, and it’s cheaper than ever to have your own piece, meaning that many, many more people can take advantage of the Internet today.

In fact, that’s where I think that you’re mistaken. In the beginning, the Internet was full of a small portion of people, making it seem variable and fantastic. Now, everyone has the resources and know-how to use the Internet, and the resulting flood of sheep-like people is making the Internet look… Well. Sheep-like.

The Internet hasn’t changed. The quality of Internet users has.

kfork (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Ten years ago Internet was much better

I believe that the Internet had a monopoly of giants that all of the others followed slavishly then, as well

Show me five sites 10 years ago that all and each had THE SAME Facebook and Twitter icons.

Half of the pages were broken

See? That is where you had the FREEDOM rather thanhaving to follow the iron-clad nonbreakable cookiecutter codes of today.

without exposing their information to Google

I was not speaking of blogs but how Google exposes your data. See these sites http://www.googlesux.com/, http://www.googlethis.net/ or read about this actual report – http://news.softpedia.com/news/Microsoft-Has-Serious-Lapses-but-Still-Tops-Google-57117.shtml or this BBC report – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6740075.stm

Ten years ago, we had no one like you defending sites like Google or blissfully unaware of the slowly engulfing monopoly. You also need to a research on how many email or chat providers were there at that time but probably it is pointless. I will wait for the next gen with better sense of what is and what is not to come up by following the natural laws.

Rose M. Welch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Ten years ago Internet was much better

Also, how in the world can you call Geocities pages ‘better functioning’ than the cookie-cutter blogs of today??? The Geocities pages may have been more interesting but I certainly don’t recall better functionality. Half of the pages were broken, and the other half should have been – a WordPress blog may contain crap, but it’s code is perfectly functional. 🙂

Nice Old Guy says:

The Half of Knowledge is Knowing Where To Find It

“The Half of Knowledge is Knowing Where To Find It” is the inscription on Dodd Hall at Florida State University, the first library on the campus.

I took that message to heart as a freshman at FSU, but then waited three decades for search engines to make it easy and comprehensive.

In high school I lived near D.C. and had the pleasure of using the Library of Congress, which once had a room full of beautiful oak card cabinets in a majestic marble hall as the beginning of one’s journey. My LCD and home aren’t nearly the same, but Google et. al. are available to the world, not just those close enough to a major library.

Cite for the quote: http://ask.metafilter.com/63386/Who-said-this

Michael Mehlberg (user link) says:

Enablement is only the beginning...

Just found this great post. Search engines truly have done great things to enable human-kind… but enablement is just the beginning. Too many of us (myself included) are spending time using the Internet to consume. We completely ignore the massive scientific, technological, artistic, and other benefits that can be realized by using search engines as a basis for critical thinking instead of relying on others to think critically for us.

More at: http://moderndavinci.blogspot.com/2010/08/science-is-built-up-with-facts-as-house.html

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