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The digital scholar
The digital scholar

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1.2 Superficiality

An image of the word ‘Google’ constructed using Lego.
Figure 2  Is Google making us stupid?

Nicholas Carr's (2008) article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ struck a chord with many people. Carr's (2010) argument, which he fleshes out in his book The Shallows, is that our continual use of the net induces a superficiality to our behaviour. He says this is felt particularly when trying to read a complex piece:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.

Carr cites the British Library's Google Generation study (Rowlands, 2008) as evidence that people are losing the ability to read deeply, and when they are online they tend to skim, jumping from one site to another. The pervasiveness of the Internet means that this behaviour is then carried over into other, offline activity.

The reason Carr's article resonated with people was that many have intuitively begun to suspect this of themselves. On a less significant level than deep reading, I know that, for instance, I cease trying to remember small pieces of information: people's telephone numbers being a good example. As a child it was a point of honour to be able to recite the numbers of most friends and family from memory. Now I'm lucky if I can remember my own number. This is partly a result of changing practice; one doesn't type the number in any more but dials from a contact list, and so the learning by rote that occurred previously has diminished, but it is also a form of cognitive economy – I don't need to remember those numbers because I always have them in a list somewhere. Similarly, I don't need to remember an exact article or book reference because as long as I have enough salient pieces of information, Google will find it for me. I am effectively outsourcing some of that mundane memory to Google.

A photograph of Clay Shirky.
Figure 3 Clay Shirky

The real question is ‘does this matter?’ Is remembering small, precise pieces of information a kind of intellectual morning stretching routine? It isn't difficult and won't make you super-fit, but it has long-term benefits. Or are we just being practical, not wasting time remembering the rote information, which frees us up to engage in more creative pursuits? When Clay Shirky (2010) talks of cognitive surplus he is referring to it at a societal level, but maybe it operates at an individual level also; now that we don't have to waste mental capacity remembering what film a certain actor was in (because we have instant access to we are free to think how the narrative might have been better conveyed in that scene.

The answer is that we don't know which of these two is correct, and I suspect neither of them is, as they both suggest a rather simplistic mental model.

Carr's charge that superficiality bleeds over into other activities such as deep reading and analysis is a serious one for scholarship, which is almost entirely constituted of such activity. In this view engagement with technology is not just a distraction, or another pressure on an overloaded academic, but is positively dangerous. It becomes something akin to a virus, infecting the key critical engagement skills required for scholarship to function.