“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: sources and notes

Since the publication of my essay Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic, I’ve received several requests for pointers to sources and related readings. I’ve tried to round them up below.

The essay builds on my book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, particularly the final chapter, “iGod.” The essential theme of both the essay and the book – that our technologies change us, often in ways we can neither anticipate nor control – is one that was frequently, and deeply, discussed during the last century, in books and articles by such thinkers as Lewis Mumford, Eric A. Havelock, J. Z. Young, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter J. Ong.

The screenplay for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke’s book 2001, a lesser work than the film, was based on the screenplay rather than vice versa.

Scott Karp’s blog post about how he’s lost his capacity to read books can be found here, and Bruce Friedman’s post can be found here. Both Karp and Friedman believe that what they’ve gained from the Internet outweighs what they’ve lost. An overview of the University of College London study of the behavior of online researchers, “Information Behaviour of

the Researcher of the Future,” is here. Maryanne Wolf’s fascinating Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain was published last year by Harpercollins.

I found the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s typewriter in J. C. Nyíri’s essay Thinking with a Word Processor as well as Friedrich A. Kittler’s winningly idiosyncratic Gramophone, Film, Typewriter and Darren Wershler-Henry’s history of the typewriter, The Iron Whim.

Lewis Mumford discusses the impact of the mechanical clock in his 1934 Technics and Civilization. See also Mumford’s later two-volume study The Myth of the Machine. Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason remains one of the most thoughtful books written about the human implications of computing. Weizenbaum died earlier this year, and I wrote a brief appreciation of him here.

Alan Turing’s 1936 paper on the universal computer was titled On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Tom Bodkin’s explanation of the New York Times‘s design changes came in this Slate interview with Jack Shafer.

For Frederick Winslow Taylor’s story, I drew on Robert Kanigel’s biography The One Best Way and Taylor’s own The Principles of Scientific Management.

Eric Schmidt made his comments about Google’s Taylorist goals during the company’s 2006 press day. The Harvard Business Review article on Google, “Reverse Engineering Google’s Innovation Machine,” appeared in the April 2008 issue. Google describes its “mission” here and here. A much lengthier recital of Sergey Brin’s and Larry Page’s comments on Google’s search engine as a form of artificial intelligence, along with sources, can be found at the start of the “iGod” chapter in The Big Switch. Schmidt made his comment about “using technology to solve problems that have never been solved before” at the company’s 2006 analyst day.

I used Neil Postman’s translation of the excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, which can be found at the start of Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Walter J. Ong quotes Hieronimo Squarciafico in Orality and Literacy. Clay Shirky’s observation about the printing press was made here.

Richard Foreman’s “pancake people” essay was originally distributed to members of the audience for Foreman’s play The Gods Are Pounding My Head. It was reprinted in Edge. I first noted the essay in my 2005 blog post Beyond Google and Evil.

10 thoughts on ““Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: sources and notes

  1. Michael

    I mention your article and link this very useful blog posting in my latest Berkshire Artsblog entry, where I briefly mention a couple of counter-examples from personal experience. If you make an effort to control the effect of online reading, you can still read books, I think.

  2. Steve Hodgkinson

    The Atlantic article was great – thanks. Have you noticed the connection with an earlier edition of the Atlantic?

    Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr. famously observed in an early edition of the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1858, “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” This was published almost exactly 150 years ago, as part of a series of monographs subsequently compiled into a book titled ‘The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table’.

    In 1858 philosophers enthused at the way a new idea could expand one’s intellectual horizons. By 2008 there are so many new ideas, so easily found, that our minds are overstretched and overwhelmed by them!

    I like your comments about shallow/pancake brains. It causes one to ponder how Holmes would regard the manner in which our minds are stretched by the internet? Deeply or shallowly? One is reminded of the old jest about the difference between people from Melbourne and Sydney, the former being shallowly deep and the later deeply shallow. Are we clogging our minds with shallow ephemera and ‘social networking’ while we upload our deep knowledge to the internet … and with it our practical, dirt under the fingernails, wisdom? Can anyone now become an instant expert on any topic in the manner of Trinity downloading the ability to fly a helicopter in the movie The Matrix? University lecturers frequently comment with dismay about the digital generation’s scant disregard for deep learning. Why bother memorizing when you can just Google knowledge when you need it? Are we now happy with shallow, thin, brains knowing that we can go deep on demand by plugging ourselves into the cloud?

    Perhaps ‘diving deep’ into the colder waters of offline knowledge, savored on paper and discussed with face-to-face people, is good for the brain in the same way that good food and regular exercise are good for our bodies?

    If Trinity’s ability to fly that helicopter is dependent on her connection to The Matrix what happens when she needs to operate in offline mode?

  3. Linuxguru1968

    How about Vannevar Bush As We May Think? Although crude and anachronistic, the thoughts of the guy who actually invented the idea of a search engine are important as well. At least in terms of how the technology could provide an adjunct to human reasoning rather than as a replacement for it. Eric Schmidt’s idea that Google as a form of AI is a “little bit out there” – too much Starbuck’s, EC?

  4. Pat ze Doc

    Did you ever consider the potential effects of screens and their light on our behaviour? Maybe the observed psychological effects are due to the fact that we stare more or less directly at a source of light all the time during the reading process from a screen, which may lead to some unphysiological form of arousal. I observe personally that in evenings I can remain awake behind a laptop screen for hours without feeling tired, but when I switch the screen off and start to read from paper, it takes no more than 5 to 10 minutes and I have to fight against sleep. I attribute this much more to effects of the hardware than to any form of the content.

  5. David Ticoll


    I just read The Big Switch, and really enjoyed it. Besides all else, it was delightfully well written. I note that you discuss the themes of “Is Google making us stupid?” at some length near the end of the book. However, unless I’ve missed something, none of the commenters in this debate have pointed this out. Maybe they didn’t have enough attention span to get to those last pages… ;-)

  6. Asad Quraishi

    Perhaps the Internet and Google are also making us international conformists. As more of us read the same ideas and are less exposed to fringe-thinking (that’s after all what Google [and popular/mass Media] does) we will tend to adopt more popular ideas as our own. Individualism is what has led to the great persons of history and their ideas which themselves have had the most impact on human history. Perhaps, on the positive side, it will lead to greater peace – wars are frequently about clashing ideals and purposes after all. I would not ,however, vote for peace if it meant trading humanity’s progress in the bargain.

  7. ERoss

    When the Atlantic runs a full page ad in Business Week (Nov 03 Issue) with only the words ‘Is google making us stupid?”

    You can safely say you hit a nerve

  8. Jessica

    Hello Nick,

    My name is Jessica, and I am a senior at Milken Community High School. My history class, America 3.0 (a study of the last 40 years of American history and how it will affect the future of our country) recently read your book, The Big Switch, and I particularly found your iGod chapter to be riveting, as well as frightening when discussing the looming future of artificial intelligence integrated into our brains.

    When I discussed this topic with my friends, they seemed very aggressive and quick to put down my feelings of ambivalence towards this future technology. One friend in particular strongly supports the utilization of this technology, claiming that it will improve our quality of life ten fold due to the instant gratification that the brain chip will give us. Mass amounts of information readily available at our fingertips will allow for learning to elevate to a new level.

    My issue with this technology is the potential it provides for mind infiltration. It is no secret, there are people all around the world that hack computers, and steal extremely important information. Take China for example, with online communities designated to attack the United States government websites through Denial of Service attacks. They’ve stolen terabytes of information on the F-25 joint strike fighter, which America and other NATO supporting companies have supported billions into. We still don’t know what they did with the information, except that they have it and that it can be used against us.

    Now, with the issue of hackers getting into computer databases in our government, an institution that is supposed to be the safest in the country, how are we supposed to allow computer chips to be installed into our brains? I truly believe that it doesn’t matter how advanced technology gets, there will always be a way to break it down and I definitely don’t feel comfortable with the idea of someone getting into my mind. When the information being stolen is external, tangible, outside of my body, it is explainable. It can be taken by anyone. But, when something is in the safety of my mind, and is open to be absconded with, that is where the true fear begins to erupt.

    This type of hacking opens to door to all different kinds of mind based warfare, and Orwellian opportunities. Who is to say that America won’t enter the age of 1984, and use computer databases in our minds just as the Thought Police did? We are entering uneasy times in our country, and already you can slowly see civil liberties being taken away. Say the word ‘bomb’ in an airport, and you will see what our country has come to. No longer will you have to say the word ‘bomb’, all you will have to do is think it. People will be wrongly attacked and questioned for harmless thoughts, and involuntary daydreams that were not floating through the id with violent intentions.

    You speak about the technology, “…offer[ing] the ‘potential for outside control of human behavior through digital media.’ We will become programmable, too” (pg 217). The age in which humans will no longer be able to be differentiated on the basis of intelligence, where we will be able to technologically advance our brains without the labor of learning, will be a very dark age. No longer will education be respected, or necessary for that matter. Why even live if every single documented human experience will be readily available in our minds? There will no longer be surprise…accomplishment…competition…we will turn into a conformist country, ruled by robots.

  9. Melissa Elliott

    We recently read your article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” in my College English class. I am a mom of two and the artical actually really made me think about why my girls don’t like to sit down and read a book. The article made me realize that their brains were never trained to be that quiet and that still. We are now working with them to train their brains to slow down so they can sit and read for long periods of time. I no longer get severely frustrated with them because I understand them a little better. Thank you.

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