Google, Corn Syrup And Treadmills : Our Boundless Desire For Achievement And Inconvenience

Last week, I pointed to an article by Nick Carr in this month’s Atlantic magazine: Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nick talks about how the Internet is having a dramatic effect on how we think. In short, he asserts that the Internet, with all its bite-sized chunks of content, is conditioning our minds such that our ability to focus for longer periods of time and our ability to think more deeply is compromised.

I tend to agree with Nick’s theory, though I’m not sure what Google has to do with it (other than making for a snazzier article title). The measurable unit of information is undoubtedly dwindling. From 30 minute sitcoms to two-minute videos. From ten page articles to a two paragraph blog post. From a feature-length album to .99 cent songs on iTunes. I will be the first to admit that I don’t let songs finish these days. I also find myself having a lower tolerance for giving a movie a chance. I tried watching Semi Pro (the new Will Ferrell movie) on the plane. I couldn’t get past the first 15 minutes (then again, that may be because the movie sucks).

I think there’s another dimension to the Internet’s impact on our minds that Nick hints at but fails to focus on. As technology and the Internet has evolved, we’ve outsourced a lot of the mental labor we used to do "in house." Some examples:

  • We rarely remember phone numbers any more (with the exception of a very small minority). Our cell phones and contact lists take care of it for us.
  • There is no incentive to worry about recall ability. In the past, information retrieval was part of the mind’s responsibility. Between wifi and web-enabled phones, laptops and Google, you rarely need to recall anything anymore. In the mood for Nino’s pizza in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY? Just put in "nino’s 11209" and its right there.
  • Who needs spatial reasoning or a sense of direction? For $99, you can have a GPS device tell you what turns to make to get to your destination.

the psychologist So beyond the pummeling of our attention spans, we’re undoubtedly offloading a lot of mental labor to machines. And the machines are getting more and more powerful. The real magic of Google isn’t just finding you what you’re looking for, but surmising your intent and then finding you what you’re looking for. In other words, as Google gets smarter it requires less and less explanation from us as to our intent. Drop a UPS tracking number or an airline and flight number and you’ll see what I mean. Google isn’t just searching web pages anymore. Its aspiring to be an extension of our will.

So the real question remains: is this bad for us? Whether we’re talking about conditioning our brains to only tolerate 100-word blog posts or offloading any sort of mental tasks to machines, are we setting ourselves up for mental atrophy?

90050473 To help try to answer this question, it’s worth looking at what’s happened to our physical well-being as technology, modern conveniences and most notable the automobile came into our lives. It turns out that dream car culture we all sought after just made us less active and sedentary. Combine that with the mass availability of all kinds of contraptions (people drive lawn mowers) and the mass production of corn syrup-inspired food stuffs, and you end up with an obesity problem. In other words, the conveniences ended up being crutches. We became fat and lazy.

So how do we respond? Well, for the most part, at least in the United States, we haven’t formulated much of a response. We’ve just now started to acknowledge obesity as an epidemic. Still, we’re consciously aware of the need to stay fit. So how do we make sure our physical body stays in shape in a world where physical activity has been deemed unnecessary? Well, our answer is to simulate worlds of inconvenience. Say hello to the treadmill.

treadmill_2full A treadmill is a ridiculous contraption. It serves no real purpose at all. Imagine how a 16th century farmer would respond to the sight of a treadmill. He would demand to see the real ends of such a machine. Does it create electricity? Does it churn butter? Does it power a mill? Your neighborhood gym (you know, the one you signed up to but rarely visit) is a Museum Of Human Inconvenience. It’s our way of staying healthy and feeling good in the midst of the luxuries of modern living.

Google is corn syrup for our brains. It’s a man-made invention that tastes really good. It’s cheap. And it’s damn convenient. Just as our modern physical conveniences led to physical atrophy, our informational conveniences will lead to mental atrophy. The question is whether we’ll become consciously aware of our fat and lazy brains and invent the equivalent of a modern exercise club for our minds.

In the end, I think we’ll be OK. Just as we can’t help but stay active in the physical world, many of us will feel compelled to "fill up" all that newly-available mental bandwidth with new exercises and fresh thinking. Our circuitry is already wired for us to seek out goals and then go after them. We can’t help it. While these luxuries (or crutches) will continue to permeate our lives and potentially make us dumber (or softer), our innate desire to seek out, pursue and achieve something does not go away.

Even if that "something" may be six miles on a treadmill.

11 Comments Google, Corn Syrup And Treadmills : Our Boundless Desire For Achievement And Inconvenience

  1. Richard Ziade

    Felix – whoah! It’s really weird that I rehashed that post without ever recalling it. What’s weirder is the Ninos example. I completely forgot I’d used it before.
    That post seriously feels like 3 years ago. Scary.
    And hells yeh…I want credit (not sure for what, but I want it!). Heh.

    Reply
  2. Andrew

    Again, excellent post. It reminded me of a post that I recently read.
    Growing up my dad (the deepest thinker I have ever met) told me about Neil Postman (which by himself sheds significant light on this argument), but this quote from the post really stands out:

    In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman defers to two other media skeptics, both famously crankier than even Bob Hoffman or Neil himself:
    “What [George] Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What [Aldous] Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.”
    Orgy Porgy, Centrifugal Bumblepuppy, Stumbling your Friend Feed, Twittering your Facebook in public. Anyone care to explain the difference? Point is, Orwell’s vision came true in 1933 (16 years before 1984 was published) and Huxley’s vision came true somewhere between 2005 and last Tuesday.

    A “sea of irrelevance” indeed. Being able to use Google, or Wikipedia, or whatever to recall information suddenly makes trivial facts as important as life truths, or maybe it just distracts us enough that we never really decide what those life truths are to begin with. Perhaps the fact that the human memory cannot (typically) recall everything is because we must sift through it and decide what is important, and what can be left behind. That which matters to us, whether it be moral, ethical, survival, that will bubble to the surface while the rest will deposit at the bottom, to be brought out for small talk and trivia competitions. Now that we have all this information at our fingertips, we are drowning in the irrelevant, and yes, we construct systems around this luxury, systems that help us feel as though we are still human, still healthy, still deep.
    You hit the nail on the head in your previous post about our longing for the analog in a digital world. We are beginning to feel the irrelevance, perhaps it’s that we age, and with age you begin to realize how much more quality matters over quantity or speed. So we try to look back at a time when we think people understood who they were and what they were doing. We try to create an environment with our digital tools that reminds us of those times and people (regardless of whether or not that time and person really existed).
    Times have certainly changed, yet we are the same creatures we were hundreds of years ago, just with more advanced tools. Like you say, I think we’ll be okay, I’m not trying to ring the bell of doom, life will go on as it always has. Still the cynic in me believes that the society will continue to evolve in ways that separate us more and more from what really made us human, or maybe not so much separate as insert barriers between us the simple and functional.
    Good luck out there.

    Reply
  3. Andrew

    Found this too, Postman on computers.

    Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better, religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant or the foolish could believe it.

    Reply
  4. felix

    “It’s really weird that I rehashed that post without ever recalling it. ”
    haha – sounds like you already outsourced your brain :)

    Reply
  5. Jen

    Yes, totally. I think about this so often and I’m not really sure what my verdict is, but I think it’s important to get ‘away’ once in a while (as in, turn off some of the machines in your life and spend a day reminding yourself of your intuition).
    But I do think half of the battle is to continue questioning it (as you seem to on a 3-year cycle! ;)) and not just blindly drink down whatever Google or modernity is serving up.

    Reply
  6. Stjohn

    Hi,
    great post. I had come to much the same conclusion. As a 36 year old guy I have had the privilege to live through the abundance of first the transistor, then the personal computer and now the internet. I feel sorry for kids who don’t get the chance to read a book due to the magnetic lure of msn. The internet and associated technologies can certainly offer an easy path down the road to grey matter mush. A small tip to reverse the decay of synaptic links – stop cutting and pasting queries into google, it keeps the cogs turning!

    Reply
  7. Patrick

    I like how you bring up the fact that high fructose corn syrup is aiding to the “fatness” of Americans. I hate high-fructose corn syrup all together and try to avoid the stuff like it’s syphilis. When was the last time that you had a real coke made with sugar? I did, recently at Sundance Cinemas in San Francisco, they serve “real” cokes made with sugar that come in those cute little bottles, from good old Mexico, of course.
    Maybe one day, America will wake up from their sugar coma and stop subsidizing corn farmers to make the stuff. Corn is America’s number one abundant crop, and it’s also the cheapest. Maybe one day they’ll stop sweetening food with corn and use corn for it’s other inefficient byproducts like ethanol.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    I like how you bring up the fact that high fructose corn syrup is aiding to the “fatness” of Americans. I hate high-fructose corn syrup all together and try to avoid the stuff like it’s syphilis. When was the last time that you had a real coke made with sugar? I did, recently at Sundance Cinemas in San Francisco, they serve “real” cokes made with sugar that come in those cute little bottles, from good old Mexico, of course.
    Maybe one day, America will wake up from their sugar coma and stop subsidizing corn farmers to make the stuff. Corn is America’s number one abundant crop, and it’s also the cheapest. Maybe one day they’ll stop sweetening food with corn and use corn for it’s other inefficient byproducts like ethanol.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    It’s definately ridiculous that we try to reduce work so much in life, and then we create things like treadmills just to “get fit”. Shows how much energy we waste for nothing.
    But the idea that google makes us stupid is ridiculous. Google replaces hours and hours of going through books to find information. is that kind of old-fashioned research really “intellegence” ? hardly. it’s more just tedious work.
    think about it. If a computer can get the job done, then the job was never intelligent to begin with. Truly smart people are creative, and no machine can ever replace that.
    But don’t get me wrong here, lots of us need to get outside and see the real world, instead of being at home or in the office all day. So stop reading this and get outside!

    Reply

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