Is The Atlantic making us stupid?

Actually, that's not the question Nicholas Carr asks in the latest issue of The Atlantic. He asks instead, "Is Google making us stupid?" And the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Apparently, because of all the time we spend online, we are becoming a nation of idiots.
Carr argues that it's not so much what we're reading online that's dumbing us down (though I assume the Britney news isn't helping). Instead, it's the way we now read. When you include e-mail and text messaging, we may even be reading more than we ever have. However, his argument is that we are absorbing a whole lot less. The more people read online, the more they tend to skim articles. For example, you've already skipped to the next paragraph and aren't even reading this sentence. Possibly, you are already at another web site.

I'm especially interested in this, because I have recently embarked on an experiment in which I try to read a book for one hour each day. You remember books. They used to be big before 1857 when The Atlantic and other magazines started dumbing down America with all their short 15,000-word articles.  

I don't know whether reading for an hour a day is making me smarter, but it is at least relaxing. I had missed the leisurely experience of immersing myself in a book. Unlike some people mentioned by Carr, I never stopped reading, though a large portion of my reading took place on subways or while waiting in lines, just little snippets of time I would steal here and there for the printed page. Now, at least, I make a concerted effort to sit down with a book.

Carr admits that he gets fidgety when reading books now. Well, so do I. My mind may wander after a few minutes, but soon I'm back into the book. And I don't think I'm any more fidgety than when I read online.  The difference is that, when reading a book, I'm unable to flip over to something else, and luckily other pages of the book never beep to tell me that I have new mail. Sure, it would be nice to have a little corner at the top of each page with the score of the Red Sox game, but you can't have everything.

I feel a little sorry for Google. Carr's argument really has little to do with Google, and yet they are front and center in the article. There is much discussion about Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and their interest in using Google to explore the ideas of artificial intelligence. Here's one of the most intriguing quotes in the article:

In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, "Certainly if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off."

I couldn't agree more. I would love to have a smarter artificial brain attached to my real brain, although I'm a little worried it would eventually be manufactured by Apple and be called the iSmart. My problem is that my original brain -- you know, the dumb one -- would probably lose my artificial brain. I would end up leaving my artificial brain on the subway, and then someone would find it and steal all my information.

They talked about this last week on the Slate Cultural Gabfest, specifically about the idea that Google is in some ways a means of outsourcing our knowledge. Why bother remembering the name of that bad Keanu Reeves flick about memory chips in the brain when you can just google it later?

Think of it this way. Google isn't making us stupid. It's giving us the opportunity to store all the junk in our heads elsewhere, in this case online. I look forward to the day when I'll be able to offload all my stupid knowledge to my fake brain and use my real brain only for important stuff. Or maybe I'll store the stupid knowledge in my real brain, and keep the boring stuff in my artificial brain.

But who's to say that my artificial brain would want to know that stuff? It could be like that old "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon where Calvin creates several clones of himself to do chores and homework. Unfortunately, the clones turn out to be just as lazy as him and refuse to do anything that's not fun. A few hours with me, and my artificial brain would no doubt become just as dumb as my real brain. I wouldn't be any smarter. I would just have twice as much useless knowledge.

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