Monday, 23 June 2008


Is Google making us stupid? Or smart?

Nicholas Carr for The Atlantic:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.
He thinks looking at stuff really fast on the internet has rotted his brain. It's a familiar story.
Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic.... Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

I empathize. A year ago, I was reading in preparation for area exams. From all appearances, at some point during the last stretch, when the details of dozens of readings were in my head, I sprained my brain. And I have since been hobbled in my attempts to focus. This blog--and the short, mostly non-academic readings I have done in keeping it up--have been my rehabilitation. It is anyone's guess whether it has worked--or if reading blogs has instead reinforced the bad habits Carr describes.

Or are they bad habits?
The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
Of course, algorithms don't require people. Eureka! Science News, so I am told, has no human editor;

it is powered by the Eureka! news engine, a fully automated artificial intelligence.

Its sole purpose is to ensure that you have access to the very latest and popular science breakthroughs. To achieve this, it constantly surfs the web to gather, regroup, categorize, tag and rank science news from all major science news sources.

It computes relationships between science articles and news found on the web using a vector space model and hierarchical clustering. It then automatically determines in which category each news item belongs using a Naive Bayes classifier. Finally, it examines multiple parameters (such as timeliness, rate of appearance on the web, number of sources reporting the news, etc) for each news group. The result is an e! score which represents the relative importance of a news item.

Even if one accepts the breathless-techie claim that a modified naive Bayes classifier is an "artificial intelligence," one might argue that this service is parasitic on the work of human editors (such as those at each of the thirty-seven sources for e!), even if none are involved directly in this enterprise--which, by the way, does not write the news, it just ranks, formats, and displays the news.

If this is also what reading the internet is training my brain to do, it is likely not a good portent for my dissertation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Personally I've heard the opposite about doctoral training. One friend of mind once joked that his doctoral training had left him unable to write shorter stuff.

While your reference to Nietzche suggests these trends are not new. I would point out that the work of academic historians has often involved sifting through masses of data and distilling it. And so one of the things you tend to learn doing history is reading for content, which is at least superficially not focusing or dealing with the whole thing. I think some academics in all fields in all times have become incurable skimmers, but others do not even while acquiring those skills.

I would say the internet can as easily encourage depth of study as well by making it easy to find stuff focused on your interests. As with many things in life it just intensifies elements already at work, often opposing elements.