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.
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?
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.
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.