On Google-Stupidity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 09, 2008

In the July-August issue of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr has raised a series of interesting questions about our contemporary “Google culture”. Entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Carr’s article expresses serious concern about the impact of our search-engine lifestyle on our brain function, and about a corresponding decline in our ability to explore serious ideas through sustained reading and deep reflection. The author wonders if something precious is being lost in our computer-driven, search-it-and-snip-it approach to just about everything.

But Carr shouldn’t worry, at least not about Google. Every age has its own mechanisms for retrieval of information, and if the computer screen and its attendant search engines separate us from books, so did television and radio. In fact, printed books themselves separated us from an earlier and more direct interaction with nature itself. Such shifts are both normal and inevitable. In fact, even before the computer, the need to do rapid research separated us from books in some very significant ways. In graduate school, you quickly learn how to gut a book rapidly, grabbing only the information you need. Real reading becomes a luxury.

What Carr is describing, including the shifts in brain function discovered by some researchers, is simply a pattern of human optimization which plays itself out again and again in each person’s life. Incessant googling for short bits of quick information may contribute to a declining ability to read difficult and extended passages easily, or to think about them deeply. But this is a function not so much of Google as of how we spend our time generally. Nearly every person in a non-academic career who moves into business and/or family life after graduating from college experiences – indeed, has always experienced – this same declining ability. If he ever goes back to deep reading, he is surprised by how hard it is.

Why? Because his brain and, indeed, his whole personality progressively optimize themselves for whatever it is he spends his time doing. We used to say things like, “Gosh, I tried to go back to one of my old philosophy texts last month, and I find I’m really out of the habit of doing that sort of strenuous reading.” But now we prefer to worry that our brain function has changed. News flash: If we discipline ourselves into reading heavily again, our “brain function” will change back. I experienced this same problem when I finally got the chance to read extensively and write regularly again after years of business management and programming. It was tough. Somewhat like Carr, I had nightmares about losing my mental abilities. But I was just out of practice; it comes easily again now.

No, the real issue that should concern Carr and everybody else is the same as it always was. The world offers innumerable distractions from what we should be doing, whether it is caring for our kids or reading significant works or just taking time to think deeply about things, or even to pray. Tools like Google can actually help us in all these things, but not if we let them become distractions as well: “Gosh, I just jumped on the computer to look up an address, and then I started surfing, and then, well, where did the last four hours go?” At least they didn’t go into your cell phone, the modern equivalent of gossiping over the back fence.

Focus, people. Especially, focus spiritually. Your brain waves will be just fine.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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