Thinking man's filter

by Rob Horning

12 May 2009


Peter Suderman’s contribution to the “Is Google making us stupid” debate has already attracted some attention. Suderman’s contention is that anytime access to all the information on the internet is making us smart in a different way—rather than signaling intellegence by having facts memorized, we demonstrate intelligence by knowing where to find information online. The internet becomes collective memory, and intelligence is a factor of who has the best system for accessing that memory. Hence, as he titles his post, “your brain is an index.”

Books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection. We won’t be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we’ll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.

He may be right about this, but that is exactly what people are afraid of. Suderman’s focus on memory and data retrieval seems to ignore the aspects of intelligence that involve synthesizing ideas and making argumentative leaps, and more to the point, that involve hanging with an intricate and long-winded argument and understanding how it works and what its weaknesses are. The fear that critics of internet-mediated consciousness have is that we’ll lose the ability to formulate these critiques because we will have regressed into the habit of searching for what has already been said and latching on to whatever superficial information ebbs up from that search. As Kevin Drum, who yearns to be sympathetic with Suderman, is forced to point out,

Understanding ‘broader categories’ — the context into which individual pieces of knowledge fit — requires you to read books. Full stop…. Kids who grow up on the internet may be great at looking up odd bits of information quickly, but my experience is that they often suck at figuring out what that information means and what conclusions it’s reasonable to draw from it. That’s because they don’t know the context. They don’t know the rest of the story. And that’s because they don’t read enough books.

Matt Yglesias wonders why Drum picks on the internet and fetishizes the book as a mode of learning, though Suderman himself seems to grant Drum’s point, following up his post with links to some reference books. But the deeper question has to do with whether the mountains of data now available to us inhibits thought or enables it, or has no particular effect on the quality of thought. It’s great to be able to look up specific information and get it quickly—to be able to pull up texts and search them for half-remembered phrases, for example. But chasing down information online tends to generate a centrifugal force that takes one out of the orbit of the original inquiry. The promise of more and different and enticing stimuli is always there, and our battle against distraction seems always to become more difficult. I’m not sure if the opportunity for distraction makes it inevitable, or if that’s just me. Maybe I need to try meditation.

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