I am stupid and the Internet made me so

Nick Carr the uber-naysayer came up with a superb riff on the Internet-dominated world with a tremendously provocative “is Google Making Us Stupid?”

To Nick’s credit, it has now become quite fashionable to take a dystopian view of technology with virtually all the gurus of the tech world falling over themselves to toe Nick Carr’s line. ABC News joined the party declaring that GPS technology may make us dumb (this story made it to the top both on techmeme and digg).Vinnie Mirchandani is saying GPS could affect your manliness, ouch!

John Battelle made a feeble attempt to counter Nick. [John, you could have done better than that]. I decided to take this topic up because some crucial points have been missed so far.

GPS makes us dumb?
Let us get the easy one out first, eh! First of all, to argue that having an immaculate sense of direction is a sign of great advancement, already plays into the hands of technology. If we were still in the hunter-gatherer or even agricultural-rural life style,we hardly needed to step outside our immediate vicinity.Β  Due to that, a sense of direction was unimportant to survive and hence relatively useless from a evolutionary standpoint. It is only with the advent of automobiles that we started to spread out far and wide and we started to need maps etc to navigate. GPS has simply made the chore of managing directions very simple.

In other words GPS has simply took the complexity out, which was actually an artefact of urbanizing technology. Therefore, to now argue that GPS technology is making us dumb is ludicrous . To cite another example, not too long ago, oceans had to be navigated looking at the stars, so one could argue that modern ocean going technology has made us dumb. Ultimately, technology makes lives complex initially and over time technology will figure out a way to make things simpler again albeit in a different way. This is the inexorable march of technology.

The Internet, is a somewhat different animal. It has created an information explosion unparalleled in the history of humankind. The reasons for that are obvious, so we won’t get into that. Nick’s article definitely made me think about the problem a little more deeply (Ironically, that is what he is claiming we don’t do these days!). When i was reading up on the subject, i found this insightful comment on the John Battelle post.

Saurav Sahay, who posted the comment, pointed me to Herbert Simon, a brilliant cognitive psychologist who was utterly prescient in talking about the phenomenon we are seeing today.

Attention Economy

Herbert Simon said this in 1971:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon 1971, p. 40-41).

If you read the statement above, it is pretty clear that is the exact situation we are in. Because we are bombarded with so many pieces of information, advertisements, television, games, sports there is not enough time to focus on any one thing. It is our inability to manage the explosion of information that is causing this phenomenon. If you have deep interests in Cognitive Psychology, there is also an emerging consensus about a new type of effect, that this is having on us – continuous partial attention.

A massive opportunity for technology

Technology,overall, makes lives easier and saves time for us to solve bigger problems, that are yet to be solved – like energy, sustainable development etc.

In the context of this post, taming this information explosion is probably a mammoth opportunity for technology, where the next Google could take root. The current Google doesn’t cut it yet, because it is a post-facto organizer of information and does not do that good a job of organizing the information as it is getting published (I don’t agree that Google News is good enough for this job yet).

Newspapers did a good job of this in the past when our concerns were highly localized but now with our global outlook, newspapers are passe.

Is there some hope? As the eternal optimist, i look at Techmeme.com for inspiration. Before i discovered Techmeme, i used to subscribe to around 100 A-list tech blogs to understand what is going on. I have now unsubscribed from all of them. If they write anything interesting, it appears on techmeme, anyway. You can also make the case for Digg.com and Reddit.com playing a part in bubbling up what is truly worth noting, but both Digg and Reddit lack the focus that Techmeme has and hence don’t do as effective a job.

What is your take on this? How do you handle the information explosion?

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  1. Realm of Randomness trackbacked Posted July 17, 2008, 2:47 pm

    Just tweak Google search box.. Concentration Gauranteed…

    I have always been a workaholic enthusiast … What remains now is just an -aholic enthusiast surfing in void.


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    That is a very insightful post. Thanks for a Good one..


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    Very interesting post. Infact just a couple of days back me and a prof were talking about this. I got this habit of not following any textbooks during my Masters here. Because most of the relevant topics are taught by the profs very well and if I want references I usually “google” it out or usually the wikipedia link on that topic is sufficient. So I was telling my prof about this habit and he said that’s fine as long as we are learning something out of the course but he also mentioned that may be reading everything from the internet makes us dumb. I however don’t agree with that.

    Yes, there is information explosion but if we channelize it we can use it in a good way.

    For eg: When we first got our dog home, we had no clue how to go about things. Ofcourse my dad knew what to feed them, their exercise habits and their grooming but there were still somethings we wanted to know about our labrador. My dad did an extensive study on “Labradors” on the internet and we got loads of useful tips. We followed those tips(also after consulting our veterinary doctor) and our doctor used to say that our dog was very healthy and never affected with fleas or any other kind of allergies. Right from brushing his teeth to filing his nails we could get all the information on internet. This may be a small example but then I feel these are the ways that internet has changed our lives.

    There may be million such examples which I believe show that internet doesn’t make us stupid, instead it actually helps us in broadening our knowledge.

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    Thanks Sukumar. As always a very insightful post.

    Just today I am trying one interop issue of cryptography between Java and .Net platforms. Java JCE has absolutely no detailed explanation on the Crypto Algorithms and their properties. But has many quick and dirty examples. MSDN has tons of material which again is too much to skim through. After sweating to try my own way, I googled and found the solution. Everyone is happy. But not me. I never learnt the whole concept of why it failed to begin with. So, I had to spent 1 more hour of reading to understand everything. Had it been a weekday (not Sunday), I honestly would not have learnt it. I just missed being dumb in one case. The odds are very high that I remain dumb yet successful (this world still goes by results..isnt it).

    Saraswathi, you are right except that you referred your net-researched information with a Vet (an expert). That is the core point. We see people who refer wikipedia and google as though it is ‘the truth’. We all know that it is not always.

    In fact Thomas Friedman detailed this in his best seller ‘The World Is Flat’. We still need to use Internet as a tool and it is very very important for us to become a truth seeker and smart actor to use the hordes of unverfied information.

    Sukumar, Google News is far from perfect, IMO. Many times I miss important competitor news as it doesnt get aggregated. I subscribed to many other business e-zines to get the big picture. May be it is the way I am using the filters in Google News and iGoogle.

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    I read this article too and it seemed to be written just to get a reaction πŸ™‚

    What newspapers did was filter the “noteworthy” information. Editor’s decided what you needed to read. With internet, the choice is yours. And when we are provided with options that did not exist before, we get the feeling that our life has been made more difficult.

    How many of us have struggled to make a choice at a restaurant such as Sangeetha’s that offers 30 different varieties of lunch/tiffin. They even have 10 different varieties of coffee. Yes – it is difficult initially, but over a period of time you figure out what is good at that restaurant and learn to filter your choice. I would not want them to curtail their menu to make my choice easier. I would rather they add more quality stuff to the menu and let me make the decision.

    I trust my intelligence to filter out what I feel is garbage compared to what is good. I want technology to help me filter better and easier. I am not going to complain about the choices I have. I do not want someone to necessarily organize on my behalf – be it the publisher or any other site/person. Rather, keep producing the content and give me the the technology to filter what I am interested in.

    Like you said, perhaps their is an industry here – sort of a master information system that makes it easy for any individual to apply the criteria in various dimensions to extract the information they need.


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    Thanks Ila. Are you Ilakumi Vilvendhan?

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    Thanks. The example you gave of your dog is a great one to understand what kind of impact the Internet has on our knowledge. I have several such examples from my life as well. I guess, as Vamsi points out, the caveat is that we use the information from the Internet in a wise manner. But Vamsi, isn’t that the same advice we would give to people who believe everything the newspapers publish is true?

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    Thanks Vamsi. I think you have made a fine point between enhancing productivity and enhancing knowledge. Good one. GPS fits the mold as well, right? It dramatically enhances productivity in getting from one place to another. At the sametime no one says we could not obtain a map and dig deeper into the area we are visiting.

    From what you are saying, it appears people are unable to separate the productivity gains from knowledge gains? With or without the Internet the differences are the same. It is upto the individual to decide which is the focus – productivity or knowledge or both, right? To cite another example, the IDE-haters, they all claim that the programmers will lose their knowledge in writing good programs. I don’t think it is true because those who want to write good programs will no matter. IDEs definitely increase productivity dramatically. To lose that unde the pretext of gaining knowledge seems like a unwise business decision.

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    Thanks Ganesh. I guess Nick did succeed in generating a lot of reaction πŸ˜›

    You are right in that lots of choices makes life difficult for us. But overtime we do tend to learn and make informed decisions.

    I was merely thinking about taming the information explosion. But you have brought out the explosion of choices as another distinctive problem although related.

    I guess the oppportunity for the next google just became even bigger. Thanks for the insight.

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    Sukumar, Traditional media has very limited scope and greater credibility, IMO. For example, if a news comes out in Sun TV or Saamna(Thakarey’s) we know it could be biased. If it comes from a neutral paper, we know that it would be better. Also, a news paper will be removed from stands in 1 day. But on internet, it is hard.

    My own personal example, long back, very long back I came across the official home page of a front organization of a hard core terrorist organization Lashkar E taiba. (long before that is banned by all decent governments as FTO). It looked like Islamic Spiritual Org with a name Jama’at-ud-Da’awa. I just went through the site map. It gave so many nice things about Islam. When I came across the fact that it is the front org of LeT, I went for a rude shock. The web site is for PR. Intentions are suicide bombings. So, chances are high that moderates also go in and keep visiting that. I never registered and do not know much about the forums section. But it is an easy guess. Internet is very dangerous in such contexts. It delivers content very subvertly with no checks on truth.

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    Good point on credibility Vamsi. Maybe establishing the credibility of a particular site is another business opportunity. I guess it would be a good complement to whoever tackles the business of surfacing up the noteworthy items.

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    In the absense of google, when we face a problem, our brain used to search itself for various sources of knowledge for the same. In this process, we tend to learn a lot, as a by product. Whereas, with google, we are loosing that capability to some extent. Because, the habit of google it, makes us dumb in one aspect. We are missing the opportunity to process and analyse what we want.

    There is one more example.. Even though we have got computers and laptops at our home, still the school students are not even allowed to use calculators. The reason, is that their mathematical ability would be dumbed, if they start using calculators.

    Another aspect may be the monotonous, unlively way of interaction.. in the absense of internet, we used to consult with lot of people, libraries, and various other sources, which gives us rich experience. But with google, we are always independant, with less interaction with others in our search process..

    In general, google and internet may not dumb the present and past generations.. But there is lot possibility that it may dumb the future generations..

    This effect is more felt in IT professionals who spent most of their time before internet..

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    This is exactly what Nick Carr’s argument is. You have summarized his thesis quite well. And i completely disagree because, in my view using a calculator to do arithmetic does not make us dumb per se. If you read Vamsi’s comment above, he has made a great point about productivity gain vs. knowledge gain. If one does want to know how to do calculations, one can do it and learn it, right?

    But by using calculators we increase the productivity and use our brain power for doing something that is much more complex that computers cannot do easily – like design, conceptualizing, theorizing, poetry, story writing, art, acting, movies – a long list of things.

    Same case with the Internet. If i can solve a problem quickly by Googling without having to talk to people, that is a huge productivity gain. That does not automatically mean i won’t talk to people at all, right?

    We need to understand the role of technology in our lives and use it accordingly. To say that technology is making us dumb is giving technology too much importance and too less importance to our human mind.

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    I could sense another side effect (+ve one) of Internet/ Google. Now people with sub-par people skills can be relatively more successful. The ones who cannot network well, one who lacks initiative/ geographically in disadvantageous position etc. It is a great equalizer IMO.

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    I agree with most of Nick’s argument. Particularly, his statement “the result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration”..

    Technological advancement always comes with equally sideeffects.. what nick was arguing is that internet and google is spoiling our habit of deep reading and deep thinking.. i agree with that one..

    There are some few other examples i could cite here..

    1. the advent of films has almost made the theatre artists extinct today.. along with loss of a medium that would enhance the artistic skills of the human..

    2. The advent of printing boards, graphics applications, has replaced the traditional artists.. as a result, we see only beautiful graphics applications but not skilled artisans..

    One of the problem is that when anything new comes, we tend to ignore the older one.. this is a negative tendency to my opinion..

    the theatre stage could have been preserved to conserve and develop human skills on acting which would enhance the films actors.. (just like on those days, theatre artists moved to film and performed excellently)

    Similarly, the basic arts skills can be made a basic study for those who are adopting graphics course or viscom..

    ie, both the traditional skills and technological advancements can be made complementary instead of one replacing other..

    Till a century back, much of the inventions are for enhancing human skills and performance.. But in the last few decades, the technological advancement is replacing basic human skills.. as nick points out, even human intelligence could be outsourced in future to artificial intelligence.. (that’s under research by google)..

    I could not comprehend whether its positive or negative..

    But, defenitely i dont want my child to search for calculator to do “2+2” .. πŸ™‚

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    Thanks Vamsi. That is a good point. Very interesting.

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    You have a point. But as i tried to outline in my post, technology ultimately is about making people’s lives easier. It is up to us, whether we want to dig deeper and understand things which again is now enabled better by technology. Taking the easy way out is what we do. Technology does not force us to do that.

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    Sukumar – Cool post. I used to subscribe to the view that technology was dumbing us down. Case in point, Iraq & WMD or 9/11: over-reliance by US Intelligence on technology – to the extent that they forgot to analyze the data & form insights.

    But, now I realize that technology gives us a choice – the choice to focus our attention elsewhere. Only a small % of people think differently, analytically or productively. Quoting the rest to prove a point – that technology dumbs us down – is just confirmation bias, that’s all.

    I’m sure our ancestors argued that “Written scripts were dumbing us down” since that reduced the reliance on rote memory. History tells us a different story altogether.

    I just put this attitude to fear of change.

    I think unknowingly, as a species, we are trying to make sense out of life. By simplifying needless tasks, we make our brains free to contemplate larger, more complex questions. Which is pretty much what a Cubist painter or a “Modern” artist or designer does – by eliminating needless frills & by reducing an object or a furniture to its basic skeleton, comprehension is made easier. What remains is the essence.

    Does that mean every single person will use the freed-up brain cycle time for deep contemplation? Certainly not. But that’s nothing new. We have advanced not because of many, but because of a few who chose to march to a different beat.

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    Quite an interesting post!
    Technology dumbing us down, haha ! I have certainly thought about it in the past , only now i see few people going serious about it.
    I d say its just people reluctant to accept change.
    This reminds me of a movie i saw quite some time back, It was called ‘Idiocracy’. A funny take at the subject πŸ™‚

    P.S: Thanks for techmeme πŸ™‚

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    Thanks Priya. “resistance to change” is causing this is a great insight. I could not agree more.

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    Thanks Jass. Priya has seen this movie “Idiocracy”.

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    Yes.. sukumar.. its our choice that makes technology good or bad.. its our attitude that’s important..

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    Thanks Senthil.

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    Sukumar – Great post and I completely agree with Priya’s point “By simplifying needless tasks, we make our brains free to contemplate larger, more complex questions”.

    A generation back, women did not have gadgets like blenders and grinders. I have heard people complain that it has made women fatter and less healthy because of lack of exercise. However I look upon these items as blessing. How much time it has freed-up for women. I believe, but for these gadgets and innovations there would be far fewer working women in our society.

    In our school days, we had to go libraries to get information for our projects and holiday homework. Now for my son’s HW, I just browse the net. As for myself, I would be 100 times less informed than what I am now, but for the internet.

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    Thanks Archana. Great examples of how technology is freeing up time. Of course, some purists are still of the view that dosas made with grinder-made batter are not as good as the ones made with attukal-made batter πŸ™‚ but that would be the subject matter for another post, right?

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    padma ashtekar said June 30, 2008, 3:18 am:

    Thought provoking post.I feel that we should learn to strike a balance ,not getting obsessed with the internet but derive positive things from it.For children’s project (for a 6 std boy),if they give a topic(for example’Carbon’ which is vast and beyond their scope) and ask them to give a presentation on it,net is the best tool to collect information.It saves money on transportation to library(even in libraries u r not sure whether u will be able to get appropriate books),reduces petrol/diesel usage(which is much needed today),saves time ,basically technology/net are time savers.i dont accept the view that it may dumb the future generations,because it is in the hands of the parents to inculcate book reading habits and other brain stimulating activities ,physical activities in their children.we can guide the future generation to use the technology/net usefully.Not only children,even we can learn to spend time for our own self apart from spending time in net. Technology/net should be used like alladin’s djinni,a slave but not the master

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said June 30, 2008, 6:43 am:

    Thanks Padma. You have nailed it. We have to use technology as our slave and not as our master. This is a great way to handle the impact of technology. Thanks for the insight.

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    Nice post Sukumar. Let me be frank in saying i couldn’t read the original “Is google making me stupid” article in a single go. Too long for me to hold my interest. That said everything what the article had to say.

    Anyways it was recently when an article on Wall Street Journal hit me that i thought i too need to scribble about this and i did it on my blog. Though my take was quite ludicrous, but frankly speaking i needed a break. I was overloaded with information about “Information Overload” and i already knew i have got stupid. Something has indeed tweaked in my cerebellum πŸ™‚

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    Thanks Amit. I guess many people do agree with Nick’s observations. He has a great knack for capturing a thought that many haven’t yet articulated.

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    Technology making us dumb. I don’t think so. Its trying to make our life easy. Most of us know how to navigate to places which we are well aware of. Think about going to a place which has no clue to you. GPS comes in handy. It means that there is no need for wasting your memory cells in your brain to store this information. (I’m not good at biology. Some neurons are used to store this information).

    If the technology is to blamed for dumbness, that means people are already stupid :).

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said July 20, 2008, 11:41 am:

    Thanks Selvaraaju for agreeing with me.

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