« New frontiers in social networking | Main | Touch me »

Mighty stupid media

September 13, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of doing an interview with the BBC World Service's excellent show Digital Planet. One thing we discussed was the way software tools, by automating certain mental chores, may in subtle ways weaken our ability to learn. We talked, in particular, about how the reliance on GPS systems may weaken our ability to build mental maps of space, as well as about a fascinating Dutch study that showed that user-friendly software can lead to intellectual laziness.

The brief interview, which you can hear here, inspired a BBC News article yesterday that bore the headline "How good software makes us stupid."

And then, today, that BBC News article turned into a Daily Telegraph piece with this headline:


I can't wait to see the headline in the News of the World.


Well, I guess you have just proved your point.

Posted by: TB ! [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 13, 2010 03:41 PM

If this is the case, then the headline writer for that Telegraph article has been using Google much too often.

Posted by: Simon Owens [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 13, 2010 05:31 PM

I'm sure there are many angles to this issue, but someething that sprung up at me when I read the Telegraph article was the applicability of your theory to the current phenomenon of Japanese and Chinese young people forgetting how to write their languages in their respective character-based scripts.

The number of studies and reports regarding "character amnesia" are increasing:

Los Angeles Times:

On China Geeks:

This is all quite obviously due to the predictive nature of character entry software. A user types in roman letters the phonetic version of the word, and the user is presented with several possible character options to choose from. So long as you can read the characters, you can digitially 'write' them. And the less a person writes character with their hands, the more passive the knowledge of those characters become.

I have this issue myself. I have been studying Japanese for over 15 years, have lived in Japan for more than 4 years, and am currently studying at post-grad level at a public university in Japan. 99% of all my Japanese writing is done on a computer. Thus, when I go to write even very simple characters by hand, I am often stumped, even though I have no issue with recognising and choosing the correct characters on a computer screen.

I guess the question is, am I more stupid now that I do not have an active knowledge of Japanese characters, or am I empowered by the fact that I now have more mental capacity freed up and available to use on more complex tasks, than when I had to continually recall complex characters?

Posted by: Rob_thomson [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 13, 2010 08:47 PM

Just a sensational headline designed for people who won't actually read the article. Now they will go use Bing instead.

Posted by: John Schoettler [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 13, 2010 10:15 PM

Worse even, in an era of Internet, it gets spread out rapidly, and in different language.

Since this morning, I've come across several Chinese sites featuring translated post from Daily Telegraph.

Try to feed below URL into Google Translate, and the headline now becomes:
"Google is too smart to facilitate brain damage" :)


Posted by: Java Duck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 13, 2010 10:56 PM

Sorry, Nick - much of what you say, even if you of course mean it in a way which is nuanced, sophisticated I'm-just-asking-questions, could-it-be, studies-are-needed, raising-the-issue, examining-the-problems, etc. etc. ... is *very* amenable to being taken along the lines of "Google damages users' brains".

Look at the BBC article (my emphasis) - "Mr Carr says that this simple experiment could suggest that as computer software becomes easier to use, making complicated tasks easier, we risk losing the ability to properly learn something - in effect "short-circuiting" the brain."

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 14, 2010 03:49 AM

This is always a problem with news reporting on technology. I teach a class on technology and communication at the U of Utah, and I often use news reporting of tech as a strawman to illustrate technological determinism, confusing correlation with causation, and good ol' fashion oversimplification.

As a prof, I really want to engage with news media to discuss things like social media and its possibilities and impacts on education, but its difficult to do so when whatever I say gets oversimplified.

Posted by: Robert W Gehl [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 14, 2010 11:11 AM

Seth, you would make a good tabloid headline writer.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 14, 2010 03:11 PM

Nick, thanks, but really - between "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and "What the Internet is doing to our brains" (both, I assume, composed by you), it's just not much of stretch to "Google damages users' brains".

Yes, yes, what you said is not quite that. However, again, in practice, it's very much an invited conclusion.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 14, 2010 09:00 PM

Not sure about 'News of the world' but your observation is already been lapped up by regional language media in India. See for yourself http://www.esakal.com/esakal/20100915/5703109123224002347.htm (Well, you will need a human translator, Google does not yet translate from Marathi).

Posted by: Vilasp [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 15, 2010 03:05 AM

There was a place that was handing out a badge if you read The Shallows on an iPad. Anyone know where I report in?



Posted by: Hdougm [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 15, 2010 05:32 AM

The problem with much of this analysis (Nick's books and articles) is the anecdotal nature of the arguments. Fortunately, we have now some quantitative claims: Sergey Brin said recently that [Google] wants to be the "third half" of your brain. Thus, when offline, we have a full 100% of our brains available. When online and using Google, I conclude that we have at most 67% of our brains available, the other half belonging to Google. Q.E.D. :)

Posted by: Tedherman [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 15, 2010 06:07 PM

"Google eats users' brains, zombie author claims"

Posted by: Kelly Roberts [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 15, 2010 07:28 PM

I totally agree with you, Bob.

I too have been using computers for all my writing needs for so long that I have also lost my ability to use a pen.

Yet, I never thought of it as a loss in my brain power. I have merely lost a skill that I don't use while at the same time improved on another (typing).

Posted by: Tarek Nabil [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 16, 2010 04:30 PM

Forgotten and lost faculties (mental calculation, map making/reading, cursive writing, etc.) are examples of skills being replaced by more efficient and accurate alternatives. The ideal endpoint of many types of successful learning is to internalize (and forget or be unconscious of) the skill while still using it as a resource. But one can't get to that result without learning the skill in the first place. To take an obvious example, true academic research skills (and journalistic analysis) are difficult and time-consuming to acquire but they're now blunted and even harder to acquire because of the ease of a simple Google search. It's both the mental routines and body memory that underlie sophisticated behaviors that are being lost when we outsource too much of our thinking to machines and never learn how to do things without their help in the first place.

Posted by: Brutus.wordpress.com [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2010 11:56 AM

I look forward to reading your book. I think the premise is absolutely correct. Many problems are experienced from various types visual stimuli as I commented at "Times Go By" blog where I found the link here. Expect those of us who work with individuals experiencing various sensory, cognitive deficits will encounter the challenges associated with helping them cope and compensate. May write about this on my blog soon.

Posted by: Jo Ann Mann [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2010 05:09 PM

Are headlines by poor news outlets making us stupid? Is science reportage on (lets face it, and my library still haven't got me the full copy) only semi scientifically supported literature a total wash out?
personal opinion here: you live by the (controversial title) sword you die by the sword, but hey ho can't hurt the sales eh...

Posted by: Stewart Dinnage [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 17, 2010 06:28 PM

So, Nicholas, let me get this straight. In one generation, London taxi drivers who get "the Knowledge" show signs of brain hypertrophy for areas relating to spatial relations; then in the next generation (or is it the same) they show brain atrophy when they start using GPS equipment?

That is a magnificent example of hyperneuroplasticity (just made up that term but you can use it with pleasure). I think this is another example along with Baroness Greenfield of taking a little science and running a mile with it. I'm hoping other psychologists apart from Steven Pinker jump in before we scare ourselves silly with all this technological determinism.

But I think we can get a movie out of The Shallows: it's there somewhere, machines run amok, people lose cognitive skills, except for Nicholas Cage taking the lead who plays the role of a an adult who as a child survived underground and so still uses pre-internet cognitive skills. You know, the times tables, analogue watches, walkman, yo-yos.

In good humour,

Les Posen
Clinical Psychologist
Melbourne, Australia

Posted by: Les Posen [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 19, 2010 02:31 AM

stipulating this might be true, the internet certainly didn't create the phenomenon of people being lazy thinkers.

I think we might be overlooking a significant benefit --that being that easy access to all the knowledge in the world has manifested as folks becoming 'Information Addicts'. Hopefully this will result in the eventual extinction of the "Low Information Voter..."

Posted by: Leigh McMullen [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 19, 2010 07:44 PM


In one generation, London taxi drivers who get "the Knowledge" show signs of brain hypertrophy for areas relating to spatial relations; then in the next generation (or is it the same) they show brain atrophy when they start using GPS equipment?

Yes, during the course of their adult life, London cab drivers appear to develop a significantly enlarged posterior hippocampus, as described here:


The taxi drivers have not begun using GPS devices, so the effect there is unknown, but one would assume that, if their enlarged posterior hippocampus results from their expansive memory of space, they would not develop the enlarged hippocampus if they used GPS instead of their memory to navigate the city. Note that there is no "atrophy" involved; the posterior hippocampus of the GPS-using driver would simply be average in size.

Your movie scenario sounds boring, by the way. You might want to stick with the clinical psychology gig.



Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2010 03:13 AM

Now, Nick, again, you didn't quite say using GPS will cause the hippocampus to atrophy - but once more, you do strongly invite that conclusion to be drawn (my emphasis below)


"More ominously still, there are signs that our growing reliance on automated GPS directions could end up altering the circuitry in our brains."

"Eleanor Maguire, the neuroscientist who led the study, fears that if the cabbies adopt satellite navigation, their hippocampi will shrink, and they'll lose much of their remarkable navigational sense. "We very much hope they don't start using it," she told a reporter for Britain's Independent newspaper.

"Just like the cabbies, we may be fated to experience a dwindling in the size and functionality of the part of the hippocampus devoted to representing space. As that happens, we'll begin to lose touch with the physical world that surrounds us."

But here's the really scary part. In addition to stockpiling mental maps, the hippocampus plays an essential role in creating and storing memories. Some studies have found, in fact, that a shrinking hippocampus is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease."


But wow, do you do put various such pieces right next to each other.

P.S.: I could imagine that movie being made - could be worse than "Waterworld" (analog watches, though? That's machine technology. Real Thinkers use *sundials*, made from sticks of wood).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2010 08:31 AM

With all due respect to neuroscience, I don't need a PET scan to tell me that those who depend exclusively on GPS devices will at some point lose the ability to navigate without them.

Not that Steven Pinker needs to worry. I'm sure he has his own driver.

Posted by: Kelly Roberts [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2010 12:14 PM


Well, yes, there's every reason to believe that if a taxi driver's posterior hippocampus grew larger through the exercising of spatial memory, then that area would shrink if that exercise stopped (replaced by GPS, eg). And a similar, if less dramatic, change would occur in anyone who decreases their use of spatial memory. If you want to call that "atrophy," that's fine with me.

As Kelly points out, this is rather commonsensical, and can be grasped intuitively without getting into the neuroscience.


Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2010 06:42 PM

@KellyRoberts - do people who use cars lose the ability to move without them?

[N.b., to some extent the answer is "yes", in that people who walk everywhere do tend to be stronger, and can certainly walk for longer periods of time. But it's not said that car-users "begin to lose touch with the physical world that surrounds us." - even though they move at unnatural speeds that the human nervous system was never designed to process, oh what baleful neurological effects that must have.]

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2010 06:50 PM

Nick, the issue being addressed by Les Posen's "atrophy" is that, while granted it's not the word you used, the phrasing and emphasis you do use is very suggestive of sickness and pathology ("begin to lose touch", "risk factor for Alzheimer's"). That's the aspect which is being disputed.

It's possible to have many "commonsensical" fallacies, for example - if a little is good, more must be better. In this case, the unspoken fallacious basis seems to be something along the lines of - if extraordinary reverts to normal, then normal degenerates to dementia.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 20, 2010 10:08 PM

Seth: That’s a false analogy. But let's assume that driving or riding vehicles will at some point displace walking (I'm thinking of the slobs in WALL-E, but those ridiculous Segways also come to mind). What happens then? Over a certain period of time, as you admit, the muscles in our legs would atrophy, relative to the extent of the displacement. That is the argument.

Also, car users have to some degree lost touch with the physical world around them. Walking (not that I do much of that) and driving are entirely different experiences.

Posted by: Kelly Roberts [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2010 01:46 PM

What's false about the analogy? It seems to me very on-point, what with the concern about the effects of cars on public health. The relevant aspect is that using a car does not mean one never walks at all. So the ability to walk is retained overall even if one is using a car for hours a day as the primary mode of transport. And nobody says "Look at the rickshaw pullers, with their fantastic musculature - I hope they don't lose it by turning into these newfangled taxicab drivers"

Of course car-users are not as strong as those who walk everywhere. But they aren't bedridden either. And someone who seriously associated using a car with getting Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) would be recognized as engaging in ridiculous scare-mongering.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 21, 2010 08:27 PM

What's new? Our brains have been shrinking since we invented agriculture. Civilisation and all its trappings is giving us smaller brains because we don't need larger ones as much as we did when we were living on our wits on the prairies and in the forests. We don't need Google to shrink our brains we are already doing just fine.

Posted by: Tomforemski [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 22, 2010 11:41 AM

Seth: It's a false analogy because walking can't (yet) be made obsolete in the way that manual navigation can be made obsolete. Using a car doesn't mean that one never walks at all, true; but what if one gained unlimited access to a vehicle that made the work of walking unnecessary? And what if it became general consensus that it wasn't really important to maintain that particular skill?

Posted by: Kroberts39 [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 22, 2010 12:21 PM

People can lose the physical capability to walk if they literally never take a step for weeks, as can happen due to injury or illness. But note it takes relatively little usage to retain that ability at a functional level (versus a marathon-running level). Similarly, using a GPS does not mean one never does any spacial navigation - mere moving around does that.

Inveighing against the decadence of modernity, decrying the cultural degeneration, is an ancient practice.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 22, 2010 01:53 PM

I have been following these comments with interest.

One thought do you not think that the need for smaller amounts of information is deemanded by us due the large amount of information?

It would seem a natural reaction, I am looking at technology to work in harmony with the brian and not replace it, this would seem too black and white an approach for me.

More at: www.topiclogic.com/blog

Posted by: TopicLogic [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 22, 2010 06:38 PM

Nick wrote: "Your movie scenario sounds boring, by the way. You might want to stick with the clinical psychology gig."

Why do you think I chose Nicholas Cage as the lead (although the mention of Kevin Costner is a more inspired choice)?

I'm not sure, to press the original point home, that measures of brain size changes necessarily equates to a shift of skill level. As some have suggested, behaviour that becomes vestigial may be more than made up for by other behaviours moderating positively. Morever, there may be much malleability which crude measures of brain size changes may overlook.

I have been driving automatic transmission cars for 20 years now, although I learnt on a manual (stick-shift). Yet I can hop off a plane in LA after 14hours, jump into a left hand drive manual and within a few moments of driving it around the Avis lot, can proceed onto the 405 and navigate LA's freeway system without a bother. Mind you, I wouldn't want to invite too many Americans to do it here in Australia after such a long journey. Transfer of training only goes so far...

Posted by: Les Posen [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 23, 2010 10:21 AM

Here's a short promo clip for Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come from (due October this year). At about 3 mins in, he takes an indirect swipe at Nicholas' ideas.


Posted by: Les Posen [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 24, 2010 11:19 AM

Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

carrshot5.jpg Subscribe to Rough Type

Now in paperback:
shallowspbk2.jpg Pulitzer Prize Finalist

"Riveting" -San Francisco Chronicle

"Rewarding" -Financial Times

"Revelatory" -Booklist

Order from Amazon

Visit The Shallows site

The Cloud, demystified: bigswitchcover2thumb.jpg "Future Shock for the web-apps era" -Fast Company

"Ominously prescient" -Kirkus Reviews

"Riveting stuff" -New York Post

Order from Amazon

Visit Big Switch site

Greatest hits

The amorality of Web 2.0

Twitter dot dash

The engine of serendipity

The editor and the crowd

Avatars consume as much electricity as Brazilians

The great unread

The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock's avatar

Flight of the wingless coffin fly

Sharecropping the long tail

The social graft

Steve's devices

MySpace's vacancy

The dingo stole my avatar

Excuse me while I blog

Other writing

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The ignorance of crowds

The recorded life

The end of corporate computing

IT doesn't matter

The parasitic blogger

The sixth force



The limits of computers: Order from Amazon

Visit book site

Rough Type is:

Written and published by
Nicholas Carr

Designed by

JavaScript must be enabled to display this email address.