A colleague recently shared with me an article entitled: Is Google Making us Stupid? (by Nicholas Carr for TheAtlantic.com.) Provocative. Carr dares to wonder aloud whether all this learning by surfing is actually discouraging us from exploring more comprehensively and thinking more deeply. Carr uses his own experiences as an example.
What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.
That worries me, too. We seem to have developed a high tolerance for living by headlines and learning by bullet points. Few people want to understand the layers – the whys and wherefores and nuances contained in the depths of an intellectually challenging book, or a well-researched investigative story, or a solid academic research study. Most prefer to take what they can from the digest version, and they don’t worry about what might get lost in translation. On the one hand, we can be grateful for accessible information and crisp summaries. On the other, acting with only a surface understanding can be quite risky. Should this addiction to skimming through materials worry us? Are we in danger of losing something important?
Again, from Nicholas Carr:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up the the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
It occurs to me, of course, that even when reading longer materials was the standard means for exploring a topic in depth, plenty of people took a pass. So in that sense, bulleted information may be better than none. But it isn’t just text passages that are getting more condensed. We seem to be developing little tolerance for in-depth news stories and well-researched documentaries as well; even in audio and video formats, we’re demanding lite bites. The availability of shorter snippets is a godsend to many because it opens a door to ideas and information that they may not have explored otherwise. But it may also be poor food for thought.
Between brain science and constructivist learning theory, we’ve come to understand that deep learning requires laying down a lot of neurological connections in our minds, and building maps to other concepts so that a clear framework can be available to us when we need it to make a decision or decipher a situation. I doubt that internet skimming is building the kind of sustainable connections that makes us smarter and more expert at what we do.
Referring to Stanley Kubrik’s 2001, Carr concludes:
As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens to artificial intelligence.
But there are aspects of the internet age that should be cause for optimism about its impact on our intellectual growth. One facet that Carr fails to explore is the interactive aspect of the internet. We’re finding that the web of interpersonal connections – the ability to reach out to like thinkers, the ability to participate in leading-edge conversations, the ability to forge relationships – are all critically important benefits of technological interconnectedness.
Those of us who promote and support learning in organizations should consider the implications of this technology we all seem happy to embrace. While we work to make “learning nuggets” and “just in time” information available to people, we should also help them to develop new learning skills. We need to restore the reflective practices that may have been more natural during leisurely reading but often gets lost in the frantic pace of today’s world. We need to help people to be more connected to each other, not just more connected to the vast store of information that can be accessed through the internet. We can supply thought-provoking questions to promote reflection, and we can help make interpersonal connections that encourage conversations to challenge thinking.
Google can help us to be smarter, but “it’s not about searching, it’s about finding.” (Author Unknown) I would add that it’s not so much about finding information as it is about discovering – or inventing – new and useful ideas, and that requires that we sign off for a while and just think.