Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Great Google Dumb Down

Nicholas Carr has written a solid piece of cultural criticism concerning media technology: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He appeals to insights from Plato, McLuhan, Mumford, and others. This is the basic school of technological criticism that I subscribe to, except that he seems to have a materialist account of knowing with no overt concern for the soul qua immaterial essence of the person. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this article; it chimes in with much found on this blog regarding the limits and dangers of the Internet, especially concerning the decline in reading. On that also read the recent book (yes, an entire book), The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein.


Prof T said...

As I've read student papers over the past few years, I've found that the greatest impact of Googling is the inability (or perhaps the lack of concern) to read in context. No longer do readers work through an argument to find a piece of information. The terms are Googled and ripped from their context because they were found, not taken in context because they were understood.

Thanks for the link to a great article.

John Stockwell said...

Google is a response to conditions of
modernity. Those conditions are dominated by an
ease of communication, to the degree
that we inundated with information and
with tools that may be used to access,
modify, and disseminate that information.

Concurrently there is a shift in
American education away from knowledge
oriented learning, which stresses the
importance of the knowledge an
individual can personally apprehend and
store within his or her head, to
the ability of a student (as an
individual or in a group) to be able
to lay hands on information and
synthesize it on the fly.

The difficulty is that we are in a
transition generation. All of us
50 something (plus or minus a decade)
are products of the previous system
and have not learned how to effectively
deal with the new technology.

If students can find a shortcut to doing
an assignment, they will use that
shortcut, often circumventing the
"exercise" part of the assignment. To
blame students for raiding google
searches for material would be like
giving students assignments using
only problems that have answers in
the back of the book, and being shocked
that the students copy those answers.

Students will not automatically do what
the professor tells them to do, or what
the professor expects them to do.

is not new. Nor is this necessarily an
example of a lapse of ethics on the
part of the student, but rather an issue
of the student minimizing his or her
cost in time, versus the perceived
benefit. (Homework that is percieved
as "busy work", is the least valuable
from the students' perspective.)

This issue is exacerbated by the rapid
fire, short-attention span cultivating
nature of modern society. Again, the
notion that part of higher education
is to cultivate longer attention span
is not new, nor are we teaching a
"lost generation". The question is
finding a way to tap into that student's

One way to do that would be to give
students assignments which require that
they research topics with then aim of
upgrading online resources. For example,
students could be given the assignment
to improve Wikipedia pages on particular
topics. In this way, they would be
doing something that would be real, and
may also be competitive to a degree
and would engage the attention of
certian students.

So, I would imagine that there would
be phase one assignments, where you
tell the students--- go out there
on the internet and write me an
article that summarizes everything you
find on a particular topic.

The phase two assignment. Ok now
that you have a familiarity with what
is out there on the net on this topic,
do some book research to upgrade that
information, which then would be
put on Wikipedia.

Doug Groothuis said...


I refuse to be a chameleon; I am a curmudgeon. I will not capituate to cultural changes that decrease knowledge. Read "Chameleon Christianity" by Richard Keyes.

I am thinking seriously of banning laptops from my classes next term. I do not let students use Wikipedias for papers. And so on.

James said...

Such a ban would drive so many students crazy!!! How dare you make them take notes with a pen and paper!!!
I would love it -- the lack of incessant typing noises would be refreshing. And I can confirm as a student, much of the time they're typing emails and web searches, rather than lecture notes.
This is the reason I refuse to bring a laptop to class -- too many distractions. Another reason is that I do not want my handwriting to suffer as a result of never being used. I enjoy the skill of taking and organizing hand-written notes, and saving them for reference on my bookshelves.

BJ the Tornado said...

Interestingly, this very article came up over discussion with a few friends I had over for a dinner party tonight. Although we all, on the whole, agreed that it raised important issues... we felt that the article itself was ironically of a short attention span and lacking depth (it was 3000 or so words, no? -- Yet it complained of the lack of attention of the current generation).

Not bad... but certainly we need better cultural critics with more nuance and sophistication to address the complex myriad of challenges we face today.

John Stockwell said...

D. Groothuis wrote:

I refuse to be a chameleon; I am a curmudgeon. I will not capituate to cultural changes that decrease knowledge. Read "Chameleon Christianity" by Richard Keyes.

I am thinking seriously of banning laptops from my classes next term. I do not let students use Wikipedias for papers. And so on.

The term "chameleon" refers to a creature that
adopts protective coloration as a method of
achieving invisibility.

I suggest that it is better to think of ones self
as a traveler in a new land of opportunities.
Certainly banning laptops during lectures is
appropriate, as is banning calculators in a math

You are naive, if you believe that your students
are not
making use of Wikipedia. The proper way to use
Wikipedia is as a start to investigations, with the
notion that you can't really trust stuff you haven't
verified yourself. Furthermore, if you can
only present what is in an online article, you
haven't done anything.

The biggest challenge that academics have these
days is educating students about plagiarism,
convincing them that it is wrong, and casting
a tight enough net that you can enforce an
anti-plagiarism rule. The second challenge is
to fight the tendency that students have to
quick-fix bad scholarship. (These are not new
issues by any means. They are only amplified by
technology, and by the blindness of professors
who deny modernity.)

To attempt to recreate the academic climate of
an earlier time, however, is like being the ugly
American traveler who refuses to speak the
local language and only eats at MacDonalds.

Prof T said...

The issue I addressed with Google is not the finding of an answer, but rather the unanalyzed use of snippets that are placed together into an incomprehensible answer. Imagine a student casting about for the 'date' of a biblical text bringing back both a Mosaic and late Persian answer. Having found both via the Google search they are each included without any recognition of the incongruity of the two. It's this kind of "finding" without "reading" to which I object. If the info is found via Google, read and then properly contextualized and understood, whether or not it was "found" via Google is irrelevant. But what I have found is that students don't find sources to read via Google, they find snippets to cut and paste.

Michael said...

I appreciated Nicholas Carr's article. In particular, I concur with his insight about how a person's typical interaction with the Internet (browsing, surfing, or skimming at maximum speed) actually changes the way he or she thinks. Here is the crux of the problem: Does it really matter that students can access (and perhaps, even synthesize) vast amounts of information if they don't know how to appropriately relate it to life? Again, cutting and pasting (perhaps plagiarizing) information (that may be inaccurate) is a far cry from reflectively reading, contemplating, assessing, and internalizing information in context such that one gains knowledge and retains wisdom for living.

hobie said...

Doug: I'm not buying the notion that Google is decreasing knowledge. Google may be decreasing thinking, but if this is true, the answer is not for teachers to require that their students ignore a world that makes research not only easier, but also more effective. We in the academic world have a responsibility to ask different questions, not whine about the ease with with our students seem to be able to answer the old questions.

As a research instructor, I concur with you that using Wikipedia is not research. For that matter, using Google is not research. But Stockwell is correct that Wiki and Google have at least provided us with tools with which we, and our students, can use to begin to search for questions that have not been addressed. These tools are not the end product of research, but they do provide places to start.

Stockwell also makes a valid point about the growth of plagiarism, both intentional and unintentional. While online search engines did not invent plagiarism, they have certainly made it seem easier. Wise professors who have grown with the times understand that the same tools that are used to plagiarize are also useful in detecting intellectual theft.

I think that this is the greatest day yet in which to conduct research. Our real concern should not be simply to enjoy the ease of knowledge, but to use this moment to fuel the power of thinking. This, I fear, is a moment that is not being tracked as it should by some of us in the academic world.

kaicevy said...

On that also read the recent book (yes, an entire book), The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein

Doug Groothuis said...


Yes, this article is no substitute for reading books by Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and Neil Postman!

Doug Groothuis said...


Access to information is not the same as (a) gaining knowledge or (b) having a coherent worldview.

I find that my intro students at state schhols tend to not think coherently. In one answer, they will affirm (for example) a Christian meta-ethic and relativism! This tendency to incoherence was noted back in about 1991 in a dialogue between Neil Postman and Camile Paglia in The Atlantic Monthly (Yes, use Google to find that and read it. Don't scan it!) Postman said that he would point out contradictions in student papers, and the students would say, "So?"

Doug Groothuis said...

It was in Harpers in March of 199. It is not available free on line, sadly. I know I have it in my hard files somewhere...

hobie said...


"Access to information is not the same as (a) gaining knowledge or (b) having a coherent worldview."

I agree with this. For instance, the fact that our world has provided us with more and better access to Coltrane recordings does not equate to the notion that people actually listen to Coltrane more. But this problem is not, prima facie, Googlic. We surmise that so-called digital natives have primarily focused on technology’s power to communicate and entertain, not its power to inform and investigate. While Google may enable this condition, it has not created it. So have teachers who do not require students to think better or differently. It is our duty as educators to support this belief that complete thoughts do not come to any of us prepackaged.

So technology has not altered one of the fundamental needs of our culture: We still have to read stuff in order to be smarter.

(RE: Ellul: I’m in the middle of Ellul’s The Politics of God and the Politics of Man. Try it. You’ll never understand Elisha the same way again.)

J.E. McFatter said...

After an hour or more of googling (whether for trivial reasons, or even if it is work-related--as a copy editor, google decreases my time spent on fact-checking by about 80%) I have to admit feeling a strange disconnection from the world around me. I have also found that at the end of a day engaged primarily in internet searching, having a normal conversation with someone seems laborious.

By the way, this particular issue of Atlantic Monthly has a very interesting article about the changing face of crime in America (especially Memphis). You really need to check it out. I'm sure it will heap all kinds of criticism.

But for this article, try finding a hard copy of Atlantic Monthly at your local bookstore or library.

BJ the Tornado said...


YES, the article on crime, particularly the trends unmasked in Memphis, was amazing. One of the most fascinating pieces of read in a long time. It is definitely the most important piece in that issue of the Atlantic and will garner the most attention, I'm sure (as you mention).

Really, everyone, go read that article. It will change the way you think about poverty and crime in the US.

Doug Groothuis said...

Harpers, 1991!