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Response to “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “Electracy”

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(As part of my communications class, I am to write responses to all required readings and post them on my blog. In short, the entire world can read my homework, so I’d better make it good!)

Before I started reading Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I instinctively looked at my browser’s scroll bar to get an estimate of how long the article would be. Concerned when I realized the bar spanned 37 pages, I scrolled down to where the article ended and realized most of the pages are comments. Suddenly I felt relieved, since I now knew how long the article I was about to read would be.

This pre-reading behavior of mine went well with one of Carr’s main points: it’s harder for people today to immerse themselves in longer readings. I couldn’t just start reading the article, it seemed too long at first to just dive into. When I got to the article, I expected to extract the main points immediately, rather than searching for them across many pages.

Carr points out studies that show that while people are reading more than they used to, they aren’t reading to retain information, rather that they “power browse horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins.” This type of behavior sounds exactly like the type promoted by StumbleUpon, in which you have a big button that will take you to a random website, and you look at each site for maybe a few seconds each. Sure, you can save pages and go back to them later, but I never really did when I tried it. There’s just too much information out there to skim to go back and study anything in-depth. Even when reading Google News I rarely click past the headlines; why slow down when there’s an endless ticker tape of one-sentence factoids to consume?

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The Internet also seems to be reducing our sophistication. Gregory Ulmer’s “The Learning Screen” features a table of apparatuses common to citizens of the Internet, and “Entertainment” is featured as the main practice of electracy. Even though the initial vision of the ARPANET was to link universities and government agencies and put information at our fingertips, but if you look at the most popular sites on the Internet it would seem most people use it for browsing cat pictures. Ulmer explains that electracy is usually introduced through TV, video games, and various other entertainment venues while “literacy often begins in the home as well, but is fully implemented when the child starts school,” which creates problems for electracy since the school doesn’t endorse it. I’ve written in the past about how computers and education don’t seem to get along, and this seems to hold true today. Ullman and Carr both point to Socrates and Plato, and how they weren’t treated very well back in the day because of their ideas and teachings were corrupting the youth, but how many centuries later we recognized the importance of their ideas. On the topic of Electracy, Ullman says that we should “appreciate the potential of Entertainment, not to judge it exclusively by its present accomplishments, but to imagine what it might be two millennia into the future,” just as we did with literacy.

Carr mentions how the invention of the mechanical clock is a historical example of inventions changing how our brain functions, that “in deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.” I would agree with this sentiment as well. Early in my life I got into the habit of wearing an electronic wristwatch wherever I went. The watch was very advanced, and had a timer, a stopwatch, 3 alarms, and 2 different time zones. As much as I just played around with it, I also used it to get my life into a routine. By the first alarm I’d wake up, the second alarm would signify breakfast, and the third would indicate when I had to go off to school. After school, I’d set a stopwatch to track how long I did homework for, stopping for TV breaks every 20 minutes, and a timer that would indicate how much time till dinner, till I had to go to bed, etc. I tried to synchronize my life to meet the demands of this technology.

I found Carr’s passage about Google’s motives behind their drive to get us instant information particularly interesting, as it’s true that the more we hop from page to page, the more advertising dollars Google gets. The idea of getting what you need and moving on seems a bit like answering to the demands of a timer or an alarm on your watch. No time to sit around if you’re on the clock, and no real reason to keep reading if you’ve gotten what you need. It’s a double edged sword: on one hand, you can be more efficient but on the other you don’t get as rich a content. If I want today’s weather forecast I don’t even need to go past Google, but what I don’t see is the weather maps, the extended forecast, the air pollution index, or anything else that might enhance my knowledge. If I ask Siri if I need a jacket this evening, it’ll tell me yes or no, which is the answer I’m looking for, but that’s about all I’ll know.

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