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Review of The Google Effect (full PDF here)

Are Google, blogs, and wikis making us stupid?

Tara Brabazon contends that due to the nature of Google, blogs, and wikis, we are coming to value popularity more than quality, and as a result, we are seeing a flattening of expertise, which she coins The Google Effect. Because Google’s top results are generated by a complex algorithm which in layman’s terms can be boiled down to “more traffic and clicks = higher search results” we’re seeing the popular items atop the heap, leaving the higher quality (but less popular) items to fall down the search results to the 2nd, 3rd, or 798th page.

Brabazon makes some valid cautionary points regarding Google, blogs, and wikis. The vast majority of us never look past the first page of Google results for many queries, never delving in with much depth in to a topic. Nicholas Carr deemed this outcome of our internet-addicted lives The Shallows, a (Pulitzer finalist) book about the effect the internet is having on our brains. The book was developed from Carr’s essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which he presented a thesis which is somewhat similar to Brabazon’s. He wonders if we are becoming ‘pancake people’ – with a wide but flat knowledge base – knowledgeable in many areas, but experts in none. Carr differs from Brabazon in that he presents his thoughts as objective musings rather than subjective criticisms.

Brabazon confirms her elitist frame of mind early, firmly stating that “As blogs continue to fill the Web with the bizarre daily rituals and opinions of people we would never bother speaking to at a party, let alone invite into our homes, there has never been a greater need to stress the importance of intelligence, education, credentials and credibility.” Perhaps that is a benefit of the internet – that we are exposed to more opinions and viewpoints than we would allow ourselves to in the analog world? Thomas L. Friedman would say so, as he expressed in The World Is Flat – his ode to globalization and the levelling of the playing field brought upon by the internet.

And what about the supposed wisdom of crowds? Aren’t we told that as a crowd, our collective intelligence is increased? Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing, Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and Don Tapscott’s and Anthony D. Williams’ Macrowikinomics are three (popular – oh no!) books which have illustrated the power and capabilities of our networked communities, using a wide range of examples including the open source community (Linux, Firefox, WordPress, etc), networks of amateur astronomers aiding professionals (,  the use of social media to save lives in Haiti and Japan during devastating earthquakes,  and the amazing capabilities of microlending website, which has facilitated nearly 300,000 loans totalling more than $200 million dollars, primarily assisting small businesses in third-world countries.

I’ve spoken to academia at this university about these particular books, and had the authors’ arguments dismissed because they “wrote for a popular audience, rather than one that is scholarly.” I think this type of thinking is inherently flawed. To me it looks something like this:

Popular stuff is not peer reviewed

If something is not peer reviewed, it is low quality

Everything popular is of low quality

Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but I think that Brabazon’s line of thinking is only too common in the mindset of those who have developed their understanding in the academic environment of the industrial age. It’s extremely linear, top-down, and close-minded.

[Will we ever have another Copernicus or Einstein? Could an amateur astronomer or an obscure patent clerk, working in isolation, wow the world with a startling new theory? Or are we so caught up in the extensive peer review process of circular back-patting that our academics would not give these amateurs the time of day?]

Misinformation and the overvaluation of popularity versus quality is not exclusive to Google. One could argue that all media throughout history has suffered from this effect to some degree.

John Dewey cites Julian Huxley’s book Scientific Research and Social Needs in saying that “one aim of education should be to teach people to discount the unconscious prejudices that their social environments impress upon them.” This was written shortly after World War II in the wake of the Hitlerization of Germany through the propaganda of the press and radio which Dewey calls “two of the most powerful means of inculcating mass prejudice.”

Dewey contends that “An intelligent understanding of social forces given by schools is our chief protection.” It was true in the era of print and radio, and it’s still true in the era of the internet.

I’ve heard teachers say, “We can’t just let them use Wikipedia – anyone can edit it!” which first makes me laugh, and then subsequently sad. It’s been well-documented that Wikipedia is just as accurate as Britannica, and has the benefit of being instantly editable when there is an error. Wikipedia is perhaps the most incredible and comprehensive collection of human knowledge ever assembled, comparable to Borges’ mystical Library of Babel, as James Gleick illustrates in The Information.

If the tool is there, we shouldn’t hide it from our students. New tools offer opportunities, and it’s up to educators to design meaningful activities which allow us to utilize the capabilities of our digital age, while educating our students on the process of how these tools work and what their limitations are. I agree with Brabazon in her belief that digital tools such as Google and Wikipedia should represent “the start of learning, not the end.” It’s up to us educators to acknowledge this, adapt to the 21st century, and not fear the massive changes we’re experiencing in the ways we consume media.

In summer 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote a poignant and thought-provoking article, asking the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. The article explored the idea that the Internet, as it becomes our primary means of accessing information, is affecting our ability to focus on any one task that requires deep concentration, such as reading a book. Carr laments that as he spends more and more time online, he has had trouble reading more than a few pages of a book anymore, and anecdotal evidence from his friends and acquaintances seems to support the hypothesis.

In May of 2010, Carr released a book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which explored the ideas of his Google article in much more detail.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (2010)

To fully understand what the Internet is doing to our brains, we must first understand our brains. Carr highlights results from a variety of iconic and more recent studies that illustrate the plasticity of our thinking organs. We see experiments ranging from the severed sensory nerves of monkeys’ hands in the 1960’s (and their brains subsequent ‘rewiring’ in response) to London taxi drivers whose posterior hippocampuses (the “part of the brain that plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial represenations of a person’s surroudings”) were much larger than normal. In short, we see plenty of evidence that the brain can reorganize itself, and is certainly not fixed in one state for all of its adult life.

The Shallows then explores the history of the written word and its explosion due to Gutenberg’s invention, and even further back to the argument between Socrates and Plato concerning the value of the written word. Socrates argued that if we committed all of our thoughts to paper, we would not have to remember anything. How do we know this? From the writings of Plato, of course. The soundwaves of Socrates’ voice, as wise as he was, cannot travel through time like written words can.

With the first half of the book detailing the brain’s plasticity and our species’ history with regards to the accumulation of knowledge, Carr sets up the latter half of the book perfectly, and his ideas might be grossly simplified into something like this:

P1: Experiments of brain plasticity have proven that our brains change over time.
P2: We are using the Internet for an increasing amount of our activities, including work, entertainment and commerce.
P3: The Internet is a medium that encourages distractedness and makes our brains inept at remembering.

C: We are all becoming a lot more dependent upon our digital devices, and in doing so, are increasingly distracted in everything we do, both online and off.

As I was reading this book, I was reminded many times of Mike Judge’s criminally underrated futuristic comedy, Idiocracy. Starring Luke Wilson, the film tells the tale of a mediocre Army librarian who is frozen in a top-secret military experiment. He awakens 500 years in the future to find that he is the world’s smartest man, by far, as confirmed by an IQ test. This seems to contradict the controversial Flynn effect, which shows that IQ has increased quite linearly over time from when it was first measured until now.

Idiocracy, a 2006 Mike Judge film set in 2505.

Somewhere, something went wrong, as the rising IQ scores of the Flynn effect are nowhere to be seen in Mike’s Judge’s depiction of Earth in 2505, which is a greatly dumbed down dystopian version of the world we knew in 2005. The oversaturation of cheap media (in the form of oddly familiar YouTube-esque videos), and rampant anti-intellectualism have resulted in what Wikipedia describes as “a uniformly stupid human society devoid of individual responsibility or consequences”. Adventure ensues, as our protagonist soon meets The President of the United States of America, who just so happens to be a former porn star and professional wrestler named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. This zany, satirical look at the future certainly has its moments, and offers a bleary look into our dumbed down future.

Carr’s book is a giant caution sign on the side of the road that we ride into the increasingly digital future. The caution sign might be too far behind us already, as we’ve blazed ahead and rewired our minds to think like computers – logical, task-switching, and distracted at every second of the day. If people in their 30’s and 40’s (who may have had the Internet for approximately 25-40% of their life times) are experiencing these changes in their brains, imagine the effect the Internet is having on our youth. The Net Generation is defined to be those who have grown up with the Net for more than half their lives. There are still others who have had Internet for 100% of their life times. Imagine that, never knowing a world without the Internet. Imagine explaining to your grandchildren that you grew up in a time that didn’t have the Internet, let alone the information organizing superpower known as Google.

Will we look back at this period of transition from a print to digital culture and see it as being as momentous as the shift from an oral culture to a print culture? What would Socrates have thought? Have we become lesser human beings, inextricably tied to the addictive external memories of our computers and mobile phones?

Could it be that George W. Bush’s infamous “the Internets” quote was just a sign of the stupidness to come? Perhaps Bush was ahead of his time. Perhaps the Flynn effect is about to come to a crashing halt, as IQs peak, or maybe they already have. Could the greatest learning tool ever created be so useful that we forget how to think as we use it?