The Internet, thinking and knowledge


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This is a seminar presentation for ARIN6912, Digital Research and Publishing. The basis of the presentation is the article by Nicholas Carr entitled 'Is Google making us stupid', published in The Atlantic Monthly Jul/Aug 2008. Illustrations from the in-class presentation have been removed (Slides 2 and 6).

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  • Easy access to Internet search has made significant changes to practice of knowledge discovery. It means both consumers and producers need to learn new techniques in searching, and in organising publications so that they will be discovered by an audience.
  • Carr has published a book on the same theme entitled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010).
  • Carr blames the Internet for the loss of his ability to read deeply, theorizes that the Internet will change the way humanity thinks, and claims that Google is going to do our thinking for us in a worryingly mechanistic fashion. Carr supports his arguments with anecdote, a grab bag of theories from different times, and the results of scant research, which he extends by analogy.  Yet he admits that ‘we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition.’
  • Anecdotal evidence can be unconvincing since there is always an opposing anecdote. An article by Goldstein (2008) demonstrates this. Carr’s empirical evidence is unconvincing here. It’s no surprise that people are found to skim when they visit ‘research sites’, since that’s what they do when they use print materials for research too. Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) is one media theorist among many. In a recent article, Maryanne Wolf seems less certain about the impact of the Internet on our brains than Carr implies. She writes that nobody knows if we will lose the ‘deep reading’ brain in a digital culture (Wolf 2010: p.1).
  • Carr notes the plasticity of the brain but says that changes can be more than physical. He says that as a society we take on the characteristics of our intellectual technologies, as exemplified by Nietzsche and his typewriter, and bythe way we started thinking about time after the introduction of the mechanical clock. On this basis he suggests that the Internet may have huge effects on cognition, because of its ability to take over existing technologies and give them its own characteristics — by which he presumably means all of its attendant distractions and interruptions. A different interpretation The Internet is adapting to the way people think. Examples are the development of the graphical browser, more natural interfaces such as speech, better emulation of human expertise as in more intelligent search, and the application of technologies to social and emotional purposes. (Pinker 2010: p.1).
  • Carr says that Google algorithms ‘increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it’. He looks at the Google founders’ desire to build an artificial intelligence and describes as ‘unsettling’ the idea that our brains should be supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence, because ‘it suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process … In Google’s world, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation’. A contrived argument Carr’s arguments in this section seem disingenuous: he chooses not to define ‘knowledge work’; Taylor is just one theorist, presumably chosen for the robotic outcomes his work implies, yet surely Internet searching should be as efficient as possible; he does not explain how Google will control how millions of individuals extract meaning from retrieved information; and he assumes that an artificial intelligence won’t include any ‘fuzziness’, or allowance for ambiguity.Illustration from The Atlantic Monthly, Jul/Aug 2010, p.28.
  • A criticism of Carr’s article from the perspective of our seminar theme, ‘discovering knowledge’, is that he doesn’t expand on how the lack of the ability to read or think deeply is a bad thing, on either a personal or cultural level.
  • Regardless of the validity or otherwise of Carr’s claims, if deep thinking is important for knowledge discovery, we need to maintain it. A variety of suggestions can be found:  Disconnect (Wright 2010)Develop Internet tools that enhance attention allocation (Brin 2010: p.2)Join the ‘slow reading’ movement (Mizrachi 2010)Get enough sleep (Nierenberg 2010) Moving away from Carr’s focus, there are other ways to enhance knowledge discovery, as indicated below.
  • The Internet gives us access to a multitude of facts, but discrimination is required: ‘Every fact has its anti-fact.’ (Kelly 2010: p.1) Too much informationGeorge Dyson in an eloquent article describes how in the print age we used to build up knowledge by collecting fragments of information, but how in the Internet age we have to learn how to discard what is unnecessary in order to discover knowledge (Dyson 2010).
  • Tim O’Reilly, Web 2.0 pioneer, sees pattern recognition as important for navigating our way (O'Reilly 2010).Fluid intelligenceJames Cascio suggests that building up our fluid intelligence—the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems independent of acquired knowledge—may improve the capacity to think deeply that Carr fears we’re losing (Cascio 2009: p.2). A visual worldMarcel Just says that our brain wasn’t built for processing print, so the digital era will be a more natural environment for humans. Visual media will become more important in conveying ideas, and written language will be less important, although there will still be a place for it (Ludtke 2010).
  • Many of the great ideas that have advanced our culture over the past few centuries have emerged in urban centres, encouraged by the storage, sharing and circulation of ideas in print (Johnson 2010: p.2). Collaborative modelsThe Internet provides collaborative models for generating and distributing knowledge. Some examples are: Wikipedia, the Human Genome Project and open source software such as Linux. Cognitive surplusClay Shirky says that an explosion of publishing capability is happening today, where digital media link over a billion people into the same network. This lets us tap our cognitive surplus, which he defines as ‘the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about’. He says it would only take a fractional shift in the direction of that time, from consumption to participation, to create ‘remarkable new educational resources’ (Shirky 2010a: p.1). New cultural normsShirky suggests that we need new cultural models to integrate digital freedoms into society, just as we integrated literacy previously (Shirky 2010a: p.2). He says that the Internet could become the ‘communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change’—this will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation (Shirky 2010b: p.2)
  • Brin, David (2010), 'Future Tense How the Net ensures our cosmic survival', Communications of the ACM., v.53 (no.6), 2 p., accessed 6 August 2010.Cascio, Jamais (2009), 'Get smart', The Atlantic Monthly, 304 (1), 7 p., accessed 6 August 2010.Dyson, George (2010), 'Kayaks vs canoes', 1 p. <>, accessed 11 August 2010.Goldstein, Evan R. (2008), 'Your brain on Google', The Chronicle of Higher Education, 54 (44), 2 p., accessed 6 August 2010.Johnson, Steven (20 June 2010), 'Yes, people still read, but now it's social', The New York Times, 2 p., accessed 7 August 2010.Kelly, Kevin (2010), 'An intermedia with 2 billion screens peering into it', 3 p. <>, accessed 7 August 2010.Ludtke, Melissa (2010), 'Watching the human brain process information', Nieman Reports, Summer 2010, 3 p., accessed 7 August 2010.Mizrachi, Diane (2010), 'Slow Reading by John Miedema', InterActions: UCLA journal of education and information studies, 6 (2), 3 p. <>, accessed 8 August 2010.Nierenberg, Andrew A. (2010), 'Are we losing our minds?', CNS Spectrums, 15 (7), 2 p., accessed 8 August 2010.O'Reilly, Tim (2010), 'Pattern recognition', 1 p. <>, accessed 7 August 2010.Pinker, Steven (2010), 'Not At All', 1 p. <http://www,>, accessed 7 August 2010.Shirky, Clay (2010a), 'Does the Internet make you smarter or dumber?', The Wall Street Journal, 5 June 2010, 2 p., accessed 7 August 2010.--- (2010b), 'The shock of inclusion', 1 p. <>, accessed 7 August 2010.Wolf, Maryanne (2010), 'Our 'deep reading' brain: its digital evolution poses questions', Nieman Reports, Summer 2010, 2 p., accessed 6 August 2010.Wright, Alex (2010), 'Q&A with Nicholas Carr', Interactions, Jul/Aug 2010, 2 p., accessed 7 August 2010.
  • The Internet, thinking and knowledge

    2. 2. What the Internet is doing to our brains By Nicholas Carr (2008) Is Google Making us Stupid?
    3. 3. A polemic  The argument  The evidence  Weak  Non-existent
    4. 4. The Internet stops us thinking deeply  How is this?  The evidence  Anecdotes  Unconvincing experiment  Random theories
    5. 5. Technology changes the way we think  Typewriters and timepieces  A different interpretation
    6. 6. Google is a threat to our thinking  A closer look  A contrived argument?
    7. 7. What’s missing?  The ‘Why?’
    8. 8. Maintaining deep thinking  Disconnect  Develop tools to enhance attention allocation  Join the ‘slow reading’ movement  Get enough sleep
    9. 9. Discrimination skills  Fact versus fiction  Too much information
    10. 10. Non-linear ways of thinking  Pattern recognition  Fluid intelligence  A visual world
    11. 11. Cultural norms  Networks  Collaborative models  ‘Cognitive surplus’  New cultural norms
    12. 12. Bibliography IS GOOGLE MAKING US STUPID?