Jet Skiing and the Benefits of Google Stupidity

Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” is not so much about the effects of Google upon us; rather, it is about how we assimilate into and subsume technological advances. I do not get the feelings that Carr bemoans Google or technological industry, but that he recognizes new ways of the collection, perception, and digestion of information have massive implications. Carr acknowledges Plato’s fear that writing condemned the memory to be an ancient predecessor to the fear we have of technology taking us over. Every generation has Luddites. John Ruskin believed that industry meant the demise of the soul, saying: “Let me not be thought to speak wildly or extravagantly. It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves.”

This is essentially what Carr is gesturing towards: the notion that man and machine cannot work together without man fundamentally changing. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps that is good. Carr proposes roughly three possibilities: that we jet ski atop oceans of information rather than diving beneath them, that HAL begins his takeover with the help of Skynet, or that—like Nietzsche—we ‘just’ change. In the section about Nietzsche’s typewriter, I did not notice anything especially deleterious. The story was supposedly intended to elicit the notion that tools affect our production. Obviously. But I do not think we must allow that production to be changed for the worse, and I do not think Nietzsche’s change into aphoristic telegram-style is necessarily bad.

Daniel Levitin’s article, “Why the modern world is bad for your brain,” underlines multiple ways technology has limited or inhibited us. Much of the article deals with the overabundance of information, such as emails, which is similar to Carr’s concern that: “Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” He states that “we risk turning into ‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” Email is user-dependent. Turning into pancake people, or dilettantes, who only skim the surface is user-dependent. Plato presumably thought ancient Greeks would turn into pancake people if they relied on writing too much.

Writing diminished our memory but gave us more in return. Maybe our ability to focus or to read for long sessions will be diminished, but we may gain intellectual advantages. One way, obviously, is to read as much as possible in print, or don’t answer the phone, or don’t multi-task. I think the concern here is that we have no control over how technology advances. Plato, Ruskin, Levitin, and Carr seem to leave out our agency to a degree, they picture a helpless human at the mercy of a Skynet or HAL, but in this age of PoCo digital humanities, one would think we would include machines like Iron Giant or Johnny 5.

One thought on “Jet Skiing and the Benefits of Google Stupidity

  1. Emily Donahoe

    I agree with your assessment of Carr’s article. The fact is that we simply don’t yet know how the internet will affect the way we think and work long-term. I’m glad you brought up Nietzsche. Yes, when he began using a typewriter his style began to change, but that change was not necessarily for the worse. It was just a change. And so it is with all technological advances. They have their advantages and disadvantages, and they do change the way we read, write, think, communicate, and live. But those changes have not yet resulted in the demise of human thinking and intellectual development because of the factors that you and Michael have pointed out here. The internet is itself a result of human thinking and ingenuity, and we do have agency in both its further development and in the way it affects our lives. And, as you point out, we may gain intellectual advantages from this change. In fact, we already have the advantage of unprecedented access to information that is more complete and current than ever before. This advantage in itself is not one to be dismissed, and though it necessitates some loss, it also involves much gain. Exactly what we have gained and lost has yet to be determined. But I think it’s safe to say that the sky isn’t really falling this time.

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