Business-like, isn't he?




    Google doesn't make us stupid, but it does change what we should be

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 first published in CUE BC Newsletter September 22, 2008            

    The July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic Magazine asked a question that should resonate with every computer using educator: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Available online (, author Nicholas Carr wasn't really wanting to pick up Google. Rather, he was referring to the Internet as a whole, and to our new abilities to get information-- if not knowledge and understanding-- in near-instant little chunks.

    He notes: “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” Once, he comments, he could “spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose,” but now his “concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.”

    He relates this to the change in how he gets information. Rather than slogging through library stacks, he finds what he needs with “a few Google searches”. While he offers Wired Magazine's Clive Thompson's comment that this sort of access “can be an enormous boon to thinking,” he suggests it comes at a price of a growing inability “to stay focused on long pieces of writing.”

    A five-year study conducted by London's University College (and quoted by Carr) supports this, concluding that “users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins.”

    Carr points out that this is having an effect on traditional media as well; TV news adding text along the bottom of the screen, while the New York Times and other newspapers are increasingly adding brief article abstracts to their print editions, in both cases letting users 'power browse'.

    Concern with the effect of technological change is nothing new and certainly didn't start with the Internet. Carr points out that Plato's Phaedrus describes the Greek philosopher Socrates's concern that the development of writing was causing people to 'cease to exercise their memory'. The development of the printing press led to complaints that it was making students “less studious” and that by making books more readily available “would undermine religius authority... and spread sedition and debauchery”. In fact, Carr quotes New York University professor Clay Shirky who points out that the criticisms were accurate, but outweighed by the benefits of these once newfangled technologies that we now take for granted.

    In September, the New York Times published Damon Darlin's rebuttal, entitled “Technology Doesn't Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds” ( – free login required). Darlin moves Carr's arguement about shrinking attention span away from Google to the world of Twitter, where users are limited to 140-character 'tweets'. Like Carr, he notes that most new technologies are feared when they are first introduced; as an example, he points out engineering professors banning early-generation handheld electronic calculators, but that calculators “freed engineers from wasting time on mundane tasks so they could spend more time creating.”

    He does point out that technology can at the same time save us time and demand more of our time- that we get new forms of time-wasters along with every new efficiency. His conclusion, though remains optimistic: “over the course of human history, writing, printing, computing and Googling have only made it easier to think and communicate.”

    As educators, we need to recognize that our students have instant access to the Internet's vast storehouse of information and that their first response to pretty much any question is to 'Google' it. Our response to this needs to be to be aware of how easily this can lead to 'cut-and-paste' sorts of responses. Jamie Mckenzie suggests that it is our responsibility to “confront this cut-and-paste culture head-on, eliminating those classroom practices that encourage and promote such lazy thinking and research, replacing them with activities that are more challenging and more worthwhile.” ( He urges us to structure assignments so students must “make answers rather than find them”- his example: an assignment researching Captain James Cook is out, while deciding which among Cook, Vancouver, or Bligh was best at navigation would be better, letting students find information online, but requiring them to 'build their own answers”.

    In addition, part of our role needs to be to help students gain an understanding of context; students assembling snippets of Googled information too often lack any connection to other information, making their conclusions inaccurate at best. I once watched a bright grade 7 student writing about war in ancient Egypt. He had discovered that the Egyptian pharaohs often used mercenary soldiers in their armies. Wanting to add an illustration, he went to Google Images and searched for 'mercenaries'. In the end, he pasted an image of a kilted Scottish Highlander into his report. It came up on a Google search, and it looked foreign and 'olden days' so it must be right, right?

    Google isn't making us-- or our students-- dumber. But it's also not making us (or them) smarter. Similar to the impact of electronic calculators into math classes, though, it does change the sorts of tasks we should be assigning our students, by making finding facts as trivial (and as tedious) as using a graphing calculator to graph a quadratic equation.

    Getting beyond facts (or beyond graphs) to knowledge and understanding. There's the trick.


Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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