In the debate over Google’s effect on humanity, everyone is missing one big issue

In the debate over Google’s effect on humanity, everyone is missing one big issue

For the second time this week, I’m taking my lead from The Atlantic (it’s the best magazine in the world right now, making even The New Yorker appear precious and overwrought). Unsurprisingly, the two articles that stirred me to blog were both (a) about the Web and (b) rife with fundamental, flummoxing misperception. I’ve already written about Mark Bowden’s piece on the Web-induced demise of The Wall Street Journal. Now for the big kahuna: Nicholas Carr’s take on Google. Titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” this cover story has been sticking in bloggers’ craws all week, inspiring them to pee on hydrants to mark their view on the current state of media, the Web and the human condition. Carr’s view is clear: the hypertext world of Google is slowly eroding our capacity for sustained contemplation, thereby flattening our collective intelligence. One thing is also clear: the piece has an enormous blind spot.

Some agree with Carr, of course:

Is this a new way of thinking? And will it affect the way we read and write? If blogging is corrosive, the same could be said for Grand Theft Auto, texting and Facebook messaging, on which a younger generation is currently being reared. But the answer is surely yes—and in ways we do not yet fully understand. What we may be losing is quietness and depth in our literary and intellectual and spiritual lives. —Andrew Sullivan in The Times of London

Some disagree:

Maybe the reason why Nick and so many other literati are losing their patience with long form information is that it is so fundamentally inefficient and inferior to connected bits of information.

You look at a book, read a book, and you easily perceive a coherent whole. You look at all the information on that book’s topic on the Web, all connected, and you can’t see the sum of the parts—but we are starting to get our minds around it. We can’t yet recognize the superiority of this networked thinking process because we’re measuring it against our old linear thought process.

Nick romanticizes the “contemplation” that comes with reading a book. But it’s possible that the output of our old contemplation can now be had in larger measure through a new entirely non-linear process.—Scott Karp at

But here’s what both sides in the debate missed: Google’s motivation in all this is money. For all their drivel about corporate responsibility (Google’s motto is the impossibly pretentious “Don’t be evil”), Google “monetizes” (lovely word that) what Karp calls “networked thinking” by charging fractions of whatever currency to place links nearer to the front page of a given search.

And guess what? Google couldn’t care less whether this new form of thought is our salvation or our damnation. In business speak, they’re “content agnostic.” The debate about which is the better mode of rumination for optimal human development—algorithmic/hypertext or monastic/contemplative—is nothing but a sideshow.

So long as the dollar calls the tune at Google, it seems to me that how we read—Carr’s po-faced lament notwithstanding—is somewhat less problematic than whether what we read is the straight goods or just another ad campaign done up in digital drag.

Is Google Making Us Stupid? [The Atlantic]• Idea Watch: Is Google Making Us Stupid? [Wall Street Journal]• Google is giving us pond-skater minds [The Times]• Connecting the Dots of the Internet Revolution [Seeking Alpha]• How Google ate my brain [Globe and Mail]