Argument Summary and Analysis– Is Google Making Us Stupid by Nicholas Carr

by Bekah Hogue and Roderick Arceneaux

In Nicholas Carr’s piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid”, he makes an argument many people might not ever consider. He claims that the internet has actually affected how human beings process information. He begins to illustrate this point using a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where HAL, the supercomputer, is being disassembled by the man the machine nearly (purposefully) killed. Carr emphasizes the fact that the computer could “feel” its’ “brain” being taken away as the man stripped it of its memory circuits. This is the tone that Carr sets to then place his theory on the reader.

He explains how his mind has become much more erratic since his use of the internet. “I get fidgety, lose the thread, [and] begin looking for something else to do,” he says. The amount of access to information that people have these days is astounding, and their consumption of it, even greater. He supports this by mentioning how “…hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.”

Carr doesn’t just back up his observation with anecdotes, however. He pulls a scientific study from the University College London that is in line with his assessment. The researchers observed the behavior of visitors to a couple popular sites. They stated,

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Carr then attempts to explain why this may be occurring in the first place; he says that the human brain is ductile. He introduces a concept called “intellectual technologies” meaning that we essentially embody the technology we possess. Carr uses the mechanical clock as an example of this by saying,

… [It] helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” However, he says that this, along with plenty of other instances in technology, created a powerful dichotomy. “In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses, and started obeying the clock.

The attention is then turned to Google. The creators admit to desiring to devise something just “as smart as people—or smarter.” The developers believe that they are genuinely working on solving the currently unsolvable–artificial intelligence on a gigantic scale. Carr makes a point to mention that the fact they say humans would be “better off” is worrisome.  He concludes this point by saying,

It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized.

At the end, Carr says it’s okay to be “skeptical of [his] skepticism”…but he does leave the piece on a somber note, once again reminiscing of that memorable scene with HAL, warning that it may very well herald a “dark prophecy.”

…as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

The title of Carr’s article is the first and probably most overt clue to what argument he is trying to make.  Is Google making us stupid? The obvious answer might be that Google gives us instant access to all types of information and that that access is surely making us smarter, but that isn’t the conclusion Carr comes to in his article.  The first thing Carr does is share a problem with the audience- he can’t focus on reading.  His first few paragraphs work towards establishing the credibility of this problem and examining the causes behind it.  We get a lot of rhetorical proofing in the process.  For ethos, he tells us he’s not the only one with this problem.  His friends and colleagues- the “literary types”- also struggle with this and so do some impressively credentialed bloggers.  Then he concedes that that’s not enough to really prove anything, so he throws in some logos.  He cites a few studies of internet behavior, giving them as evidence that there is something to the idea that internet use might be changing the way we think and leaving the audience to come to the logical conclusion that he may have a point.

Carr goes on to give a very well researched account of how text on the internet is streamlined to make the browsing experience fast, efficient and optimized for profit.  When he describes how the internet is set up to make other people money and how our critical thinking skills and and attention spans are undercut in the process, he effectively delineates two sides (not necessarily all sides) of this issue and does a pretty good job of getting the reader on his.

He wraps up his argument by describing what we are losing in the shift toward using the internet as our main information source.  He laments the new idea of considering the mind as a computer and bemoans the loss of deep, introspective reading and the intellectual stimulation it provides.  After an article filled with citations from scholarly and scientific sources, he ends with a quote from a playwright, warning of the dangers we face in adapting to a world of “information overload”.  Lastly, he revisits the 2001: A Space Odyssey scene he used to open the article.  He identifies with the computer in the scene rather than the robotic human and seems to suggest that internet immersion is going to cause us to become more machine-like than machines themselves- a definite appeal to emotion.

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