Is Google Making Us Stupid? Bryan Alexander Responds

Patsy Couper W '44 welcomes Bryan Alexander to the Couper Lecture.
Patsy Couper W '44 welcomes Bryan Alexander to the Couper Lecture.  Photo: Matt Poterba '12
Hamilton College's annual Couper Phi Beta Kappa Lecture series presented Bryan Alexander, director of research for the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE) on Thursday, Jan. 29. Responding to the July/August Atlantic magazine article "Is Google Making Us Stupid" by Nicholas Carr, Alexander divulged the article's many weaknesses to a full Kennedy Auditorium in the Science Center. 

Wearing a library-themed tie, Alexander thanked the College for its "beautiful weather" and "wicked smart students" before embarking on a complete deconstruction of Carr's article. Seeking to prove that Carr's article completely embodied what it sought out to criticize in the first place, Alexander demolished the article quote by quote, embellishing his points with real world examples of Internet content Carr had ignored. 

Alexander began by using the overhead projector to show a stream of responses he had received on Twitter to a question posted the day before that asked the site's four million members what they thought of Carr's article. Some respondents quoted Socrates, and Alexander used the creative content and variety of the answers as evidence to show that, in this case, the web was in fact making him "slightly more knowledgeable" and "slightly smarter." 

Commenting that it was the Internet itself that had informed him of Carr's article, Alexander moved on to an all-text PowerPoint created to emphasize that not all new media is about images. He showed a quote from Plato's Phaedrus criticizing the once-new advent of writing: "This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves…they will be hearers of many things and have learned nothing…" 

In fact, Carr quoted the same text in his article, along with touching on a brief criticism of the print media that had later come from a professor at NYU. While Alexander commended Carr for the self-skepticism that the inclusion of these quotes reflected, he claimed that they weakened Carr's argument more than he had intended, and went on to lay out several problems with the Internet that Carr failed to mention. 

To amused and pained laughter from the audience, Alexander showed a video called "Finding Time at Penn State" that demonstrated the ridiculously long sequence of clicks, pull down windows, pop up windows, catalogs, interfaces and more windows that a user of the Penn State Web site would go through before finally being transferred to the Time archive ("which is of course time.com"), in order to find a single issue of Time magazine. For Alexander, poor information design is one easy example of a key problem that Carr ignored. 

In Alexander's most vivid description, Carr's article works like "a fever dream; casting a pall over the subject without affording readers much in the way of analysis once we wake up." Carr used Google as an inadequate stand-in for the entire Internet and its extensive uses, and Alexander quipped that "Is the Desktop Monitor Making us Stupid" might have been a better title, if "less sexy." While the full title of the article is "Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains," Alexander showed Carr's melding of quotes from George Orwell's 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example of how Carr disoriented readers by including fiction in place of actual cognitive science, and references to his friends rather than to any large scale studies. 

After attacking the author's title and example choices, Alexander criticized Carr's analogy choices. In the article, Carr described feeling that "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." To Alexander, such sports analogies in the place of intellectual ones reflect a gloomy playfulness that "kind of self-eviscerate" Carr's arguments. 

Alexander then proceeded to read a passage where Carr claimed that "for all that's been written about the Net, there's been little consideration of how, exactly, it's reprogramming us." In response, Alexander gave the audience a quick glimpse at a page from the University of San Francisco's Web site showing hundreds of courses in cyberculture studies, remarking that "we can look very practically at the last couple of years and see very practically that Carr is way off base." 

The next passage from Carr's article that Alexander took issue with was one where Carr criticized a rush to create artificial intelligence and described its proponents view of the human brain as "an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive." While Carr used such language to appeal to readers' sympathy, Alexander described it as a "fascinatingly glorious passage from science fiction that has nothing to do with anything in the article coming before it." To Alexander, Carr simply moves "from scale to scale," switching partial arguments into "a whole total model" and "suggesting things" in passive voice. 

Carr's argument hinges on what Alexander considers a "very strange view of the Internet" where we are "trapped motionless" watching information on a screen that we can not modify or use to "foster our own ideas." Carr does not discuss different types of reading online, or even the possibility of taking media from the Internet and bringing it elsewhere. To illustrate the ubiquity of this concept, Alexander asked audience members who listened to podcasts what kind of activities they engaged in while listening. With responses including cooking, walking, driving, exercising and even using the computer, Alexander demonstrated that podcasting draws on the "ancient lesson of radio that audio is deeply immersive," "it sucks us in and makes us want to do more," yet does not show up in Carr's article. 

Leading into his conclusion, Alexander went into a series of examples illustrating how parts of the Internet that Carr ignored have contributed to global intelligence. Astronomists require vast amounts of observation, but paying graduate students is awkward and costs time and money. Now, amateur astronomers submit observations online. An article published in the mainstream print media claimed the Iranian government was going to require Christians to wear identifying marks on their clothing, but within a few hours of citizen Internet fact-checking and writing to people in Tehran, the story was debunked as urban legend. In December, Alexander used Google to try to find out if we had a digital public works project and didn't find a good response. When he Twittered the question, he received a dozen good responses containing information he would have been otherwise oblivious to. Responding to a passage where Carr accused the Internet of removing ambiguity as "an opening for insight," Alexander showed StumbleUpon, just one example of a Web site designed to help users find web content through serendipity. 

Ultimately, Alexander took most issue with Carr's quips that the Internet was "too good at providing information" and complete lack of mention of co-produced social media. To Alexander, too much information is an "alternate universe problem," and talking about the Internet while skipping the entire field of social media is like "talking about politics and skipping the Republican and Democratic parties." Disturbed that Carr never mentioned use of the Internet by cultural institutions such as schools, libraries, outreach programs and museums, Alexander concluded that Carr missed the pedagogical element of web 2.0 entirely. 

Alexander filled the rest of the time with thoughtful answers to questions from the audience. 

The Couper Phi Beta Kappa Lecture series was established in 2005 to honor Hamilton alumnus Richard "Dick" Couper '44. Couper died in January 2006. Each annual lecture recognizes Couper's commitment and contributions to the college and the Phi Beta Kappa Society with a distinguished speaker presenting on a topic related to the college's special library collections or to present an issue related to libraries in general. 

-- by Mariam Ballout '10
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