Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Image via Wikipedia

So, is Google making us stupid?

Sven Birkerts, years before Google emerges, says yes: the web is trapping us in a world of shallowness, a web that erodes language, flattens historical perspective, and destroys privacy. McLuhan, who years before began the process of making an “inventory of effects” of the electronic age on our minds and culture, argues “No.” Substantial are happening, for McLuhan, but he is more optimistic that they are leading to something positive he calls a “global village.”

I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for counter-argument. For our purposes, I would emphasize that Carr’s rhetoric (how he writes and presents his argument) is, at any rate, stronger than Birkerts in key places. It is more effective in what it does, how it develops and complicates the argument–even as it makes a similar claim for a dramatic shift in how we read in the electronic age.

The scene from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the one discussed in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The computer HAL being dismantled by Dave.

The article also refers to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” part of the section that opens up counter-argument. It reminds us that various technological changes stretch far back–and that writing was once the “Google” of ancient Greece. You will recall that McLuhan also refers to this famous dialogue, as does Birkerts and Joseph Harris and Dennis Baron.

Does my ability, or my desire, to access these ideas from the essay–I might call them, to use a loaded term, these links–in digital form, from the same screen with which I read the essay, constitute deep or shallow reading? Perhaps the problem is we need some different terms to describe what I am doing.

Think back to The Medium is the Massage and our discussion of the way that this print book extends or mediates the traditional book, one could say “hypermediates” the conventional form of an argument.   Is this also something to fear–or does this return us to something more crucial and fantastic in storytelling or literature? Would lots more types of books like The Medium is the Massage make us stupid?

Carr has turned his article into a book titled The Shallows. Here is a review from the NY Times.

Some further reading links to consider–and return to as you develop your argument for the third writing project:

A recent argument that cites Carr, but offers a more interested, hopeful vision for the ways digital reading is creating and influencing fragmentary readers and writers. “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age”

A review of, and argument with, Carr’s book The Shallows (the book that emerges from his Google article).

A NY Times review of some new children’s books that blend print and digital; the reviewer suggests it as an updating of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Lanier, “Does a Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind”

“Inside the Google Books Algorithm”

Gibson, article in Wired on writing as cut and paste remixing.

Harris’s chapter on “Remixing” refers to the scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick and the digital versioning of her later print book Planned Obsolescence. See it here. Does this type of reading counter Carr, or provide further evidence for his concerns?

And here is Birkerts himself writing in response to Carr’s book The Shallows.

As you can see, we are participating in a critical conversation with lots of forwarding and countering going on.


This is your brain on Google

Are you smart or stupid as a result of using Google or Wikipedia or Facebook or other social media for the last 5 or six years of your life? Are you stronger or in some way a different reader or writer as a result of such digital media than say you might have been beforehand (if there is such a thing for you)? Smarter, as a result, than a parent or grandparent?

We will end our course thinking and reading more directly about these issues of digital media and literacy–as they come up in Birkerts’s concerns about the “fate of reading in an electronic age” that we will explore in our third writing project (The Future of Wreading). I also want to begin here, since these questions provoke some reflection about our own practice and processes as readers and writers. And this course, from start to finish, is very much about better understanding and improving upon that practice.

Two recently published works that take up the question that concerns Sven Birkerts (author of one of our texts, The Gutenberg Elegies) and that we will be exploring throughout the course: what becomes of our brain and intellect (generally speaking), and of our ability to read and write (more specifically)?

Birkerts, we will see, argues that the answer is disturbing.

Clay Shirky, in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, argues very much in opposition to Birkerts: things are better–and things were much worse with the invention of television. [link to a review of this text]

Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, offers something of a middle ground. The internet and digital technology have affected the ways we think, write, read–and some are unsettling; but writing itself is a technology that has served other disruptions in the past (including the invention of the printing press). This book originated as an article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” We will be reading the article toward the end of the class when we focus on the emergence of digital and electronic literature. [link to a review of The Shallows]

In our initial readings and writing, we will be reflecting on our own histories as readers and writers. I suspect that like more and more of us these days, your history is a blend of the old (Gutenberg’s machine, the book reproducible in print) and the new (digital reproduction and networked communication). What about that experience? How have they informed how you read and write? What might you do with them, now?

In response to Gerald Graff’s notion of “hidden intellectualism” (a way of ‘forwarding’ his thinking into this topic of digital literacy), I am beginning to wonder if the use of Google, and more broadly, the various ways we read, write, and think in digital media, is another form of hidden intellectualism. That is to say, is the fear that Google is making us stupid really just another discounting of non-book smarts, of alternatives kinds of intelligence that a student might develop just as he might with a book?  Is there hidden intelligence, for example, in the use of Facebook, a blog, a video game, and so on?

I am not a gamer, and have limited use of social media, primarily blogging. However, I have come, more and more, to make extensive use of Google for my scholarship, for the reading and writing that I do as a literary scholar. I spend a good bit of time reading books, particularly from the 19th century, in Google Books. Later in the course (when we read the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid”), I will share with you some of my Google insights. For now, I leave with that implication: that the fear of Google or Wikipedia or other newer media sites for literacy–the end of the book fear–may be, at least in part, just more of the same fear of intellectualism (as Graff puts it) by non-traditional means.

Writing Machines

In his distinctions between book and computer, page and screen, reading and browsing (or some other form of digital doing), Birkerts consistently views the book as pre-technology–and everything that comes in the 20th century and after as technological interruptions of the book-based world. We have seen in some places, particularly the beginning of chapter 3, that he opens the door onto the view that books themselves are a product of technology–that Gutenberg’s press is a powerful machine. But doesn’t spend much time looking through that door.

This recent piece from the New York Times on Learning Machines in the classroom reminds us that, indeed, various writing technologies and machines have long been a part of our learning–because writing and reading is always technological in some form. The pencil, for example, or the chalk board. Technology doesn’t mean it has a plug. The implication from the slide show is that the iPad may well be the slate/chalk board, remediated. We will return to this idea in coming sections of the course–particularly when we think about film as a remediation of a novel.

So, as you work on drafting and revising and editing your first writing project, recognize that you are working on machines: not just the computer you are using for word processing, or the blog I am asking you to post the work to–but the writing itself, and the book you have been reading and are responding to. All of these are part of a machinery and technology of information and ideas we call literacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that your writing (or reading) can only be ‘mechanical.’ In fact, as I am suggesting to you, good, thoughtful, imaginative, and rhetorically effective writing and argument is all of that because the writer has learned how to use the machine and get behind the curtain.

Consider, as an example, this other piece from the Times, an argument for use of technology in learning by Jaron Lanier: what I notice is the effective narrative style of the argument, guided by his use of personal reflection. The mechanics of the writing (moving from paragraph to paragraph) enable the argument to seem–well, human, rather than mechanical.

the medium is the workshop of the message

I mentioned in our visit to the print shop Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, a famous book from the 1960s by a so-called media guru. I want to follow up the reference in order to think a bit more about how/why I am hearing in Shelley’s “workshop of filthy creation” echoes of the medium of writing and print.

McLuhan defines media in that book as “extensions of man.” Contrary to someone like Birkerts, who neglects the medium of the book and tends to view media only as the new, the electronic, McLuhan understands that a medium is anything that extends the capability of a human who uses it. Thus any and all forms of communication tools are media, starting with language itself: writing, pencil, book, printing press, variety of computer mediated forms of writing and language. And in this book he extends this notion of extension: literally any tool that can be considered an extension: clothing, wheels, houses.

In the same book, McLuhan repeats a saying he made famous (perhaps you have heard of it): the medium is the message. He means in large part that the significance of any  medium  is the mediation it provides; he also means that a new medium contains aspects and traces of the old medium it supposedly replaces. A bit later in the course we will get back to this idea that has come to be called “remediation.”

Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that  a medium such as writing (print or electronic) is significant and meaningful in part (McLuhan a bit more boldly might say entirely) for the way it pulls back the curtain on the communication (or extension) it provides. This foregrounding of the medium is on my mind in the readings this week. We have Birkerts who is focused so intently and intensively on the privacy of print and writing, on the qualities of a book to be a medium of transport and self-extension–yet thinking very little about the medium (machine) of the book or even the writing that goes into it. At the other end, with Hayles the initial pages of Writing Machines, we find an author similarly transported by literature and the private life of reading, yet who insists upon the material encounter with the medium of writing, of print, and of electronic text. And in the middle, Frankenstein. A story, it seems to me, about the mediated nature of creativity, authorial and biological; about being consigned, as humans, to the workshop of filthy creation.

McLuhan highlights for me the ways that Birkerts neglects to define and consider and reflect upon and understand the mediated nature of new media (instead of generalizing, too quickly brushing them off). And though he does do a better job being more deliberate and reflective regarding the media of print (all the reading and writing he discusses), there is still this problem. He gets, I think, the medium of print wrong. Consider this paragraph from McLuhan that evokes Birkerts’ senses of passivity vs. activity, except it locates the passive not with television but with the technology of literacy.

Western man acquired from the technology of literacy the power to act without reacting. The advantages of fragmenting himself in this way are seen in the case of the surgeon who would be quite helpless if he were to become humanly involved in his operation. We acquired the art of carrying out the most dangerous social operations with complete detachment. But our detachment was a posture of noninvolvement. In the electric age, when our central nervous system is technologically extended to involve us in the whole of mankind and to incorporate the whole of mankind in us, we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action. It is no longer possible to adopt the aloof and dissociated role of the literate Westerner. [Understanding Media, 4]

I see a good bit of Birkerts in this image of detachment. Ironically, McLuhan gives us to imagine this scenario at home: parent yelling at child to put down that book, stop being so lazy, and get on the internet and do something real.

Does Victor make a similar mistake? What do you think?

a short history of writing and printing

I borrow from Wikipedia (one of our newer writing machines) to give us some initial and useful historical context for thinking about writing and the printing press as technology–as we head into the print shop at the Literary House. Birkerts (I presume) would be surprised to find that his own writing and book making would have been viewed in earlier times as responsible for making our minds lazy and stupid–a workshop of filthy and distracting creation long before Facebook. Ironically, there is deeper historical context for the history of writing offered in these two brief entries of Wikipedia than in Birkerts’s Gutenberg Elegies–an irony worth considering.


The nature of writing has been constantly evolving, particularly due to the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments which have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making the physical motion with the hand. Written communication can also be delivered with minimal time delay (e-mailSMS), and in some cases, instantly (instant messaging).

The nature of the written word, too, had evolved over time to make way for an informal, colloquial written style, where an everyday conversation can occur through writing rather than speaking.

Also, writing creates the possibility to break spatial boundaries and travel through time, since a word normally spoken could only exist in the time and space it is spoken in. It creates a certain immortality, that could not be experienced without writing.

Socially, writing is seen as an authoritative means of communication, from legal documentation, law and the media all produced through the medium. Neil Postman further addresses social issues surrounding the written word in his article The Judgement of Thamus. [4]

The Judgement of Thamus addresses the ‘dark side’ of writing, by illustrating it with Socrates’ story about the Egyptian god Thoth. It tells the story of Thoth, the inventor of writing, who came to see king Thamus for a royal blessing on his invention, so it could be widely available to Egyptians. The king told Thoth:

“You, who are the father of writing, have out fondness of your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”[5]

This shows that though writing might give us wisdom, how to obtain it in a world full of so called ‘truths’ has become more difficult with the advent of writing. The story of Socrates also tells us that writing made the human mind lazy, since we are committing things down to paper, instead of memorizing it.

Printing press

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Printing press from 1811, photographed in Munich, Germany.

printing press is a mechanical device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a medium (such as paper or cloth), thereby transferring an image. The mechanical systems involved were probably first assembled in Germany by the goldsmith Johann Gutenberg around 1439,[1] based on existing screw-presses used to press cloth, grapes etc., and possibly to print woodcuts, which were printed in Europe before Gutenberg. Although both woodblock printing andmovable type printing press technologies were already developed first in ancient China and then later in the Chinese vassal state of what now Korea in East Asia several hundred years earlier, Gutenberg was the first in Western Europe to develop a printing press.

Printing methods based on Gutenberg’s printing press spread rapidly throughout first Europe and then the rest of the world. It eventually replaced most versions of block printing, making it the most used format of modern movable type, until being superseded by the advent of offset printing.

Part of the series on the
History of printing
Woodblock printing 200 CE
Movable type 1040
Intaglio 1430s
Printing press 1439
Lithography 1796
Chromolithography 1837
Rotary press 1843
Flexography 1873
Mimeograph 1876
Linotype typesetting 1886
Offset press 1903
Screen-printing 1907
Dye-sublimation 1957
Photocopier 1960s
Pad printing 1960s
Laser printer 1969
Dot matrix printer 1970
Thermal printer
Inkjet printer 1976
3D printing 1986
Stereolithography 1986
Digital press 1993


Finely crafted books—like the 1249 Song Dynasty Bencao (materia medica) shown here—were produced by woodblock inChina as early as the ninth century, the earliest known being theDiamond Sutra.[2]

The overall invention of Gutenberg’s printing method depended for some of its elements upon a diffusion of technologies from China(East Asia), primarily the Chinese inventions and innovations ofpaperwoodblock printing, and possibly Bi Sheng‘s movable typeprinting press technology—in addition to a growing demand by the general European public for the lower cost paper books, instead of the exorbitantly expensive parchment books.[1] By 1424,Cambridge University library owned only 122 books—each of which had a value equal to a farm or vineyard.[1] The demand for these books was driven by rising literacy amongst the middle class and students in Western Europe.[1] At this time, theRenaissance was still in its early stages and the populace was gradually removing the monopoly the clergy had held on literacy.[1]

While woodblock printing had arrived in Europe at approximately the same time paper did, this method was not as suitable for literary communication as it was in the east.[1] Block printing is well-suited to the ancient written Chinese because character alignment is not critical, but the existence of over 100,000 ancient characters and hieroglyphic symbols made the ancient Chinese movable typetechnology somewhat inefficient and economically impractical, in terms of profits for the ancientChinese book publishers.[1] With the Latin alphabet, however, the need for precise alignment and a much simpler character set positioned movable type as a great advance for the west.[1]

The use of a press was a key technological difference provided European book publishers increased profits over their ancientChinese counterparts—the screw-based presses used in wine and olive oil production.[1] Attaining mechanical sophistication in approximately the year 1000, devices for applying pressure on a flat-plane were common in Europe.[3]

[edit]Gutenberg’s Press

In this woodblock from 1568, the printer at left is removing a page from the press while the one at right inks the text-blocks

Johannes Gutenberg‘s work on the printing press began in approximately 1436 when he partnered with Andreas Dritzehn—a man he had previously instructed in gem-cutting—and Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill.[1] However, it was not until a 1439 lawsuit against Gutenberg that an official record exists; witnesses’ testimony discussed Gutenberg’s types, an inventory of metals (including lead), and his type molds.[1]

Others in Europe were also developing movable type at this time, including goldsmith Procopius Waldfoghel of France and Laurens Janszoon Coster of the Netherlands.[1] However, they are not known to have contributed specific advances to the printing press.[1][4]

Having previously worked as a professional goldsmith, Gutenberg made skillful use of the knowledge of metals he had learned as a craftsman. He was the first to make type from an alloyof leadtin, and antimony, which was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality printed books and proved to be more suitable for printing than the claywooden or bronze types invented in East Asia. To create these lead types, Gutenberg used what some considered his most ingenious invention, a special matrix enabling the quick and precise moulding of new type blocks from a uniform template.

Gutenberg is also credited with the introduction of an oil-based ink which was more durable than the previously used water-based inks. As printing material he used both vellum and paper, the latter having been introduced in Europe a few centuries earlier from China by way of the Arabs.

In the Gutenberg Bible, Gutenberg made a trial of coloured printing for a few of the page headings, present only in some copies.[5] A later work, the Mainz Psalter of 1453, presumably designed by Gutenberg but published under the imprint of his successors Johann Fust and Peter Schöffer, had elaborate red and blue printed initials.[6]

[edit]Historical Impact

See also: History of typography in East Asia

Printing as developed in East Asia did not make use of a printing press as in Gutenberg’s case. Although the invention of movable type in China and Korea preceded Gutenberg’s printing press, the impact of East Asian movable type printing presses was not as influential as it was in Western European society. This was likely due to the enormous amount of labour involved in manipulating the thousands of porcelain tablets, or in the case of Koreametal tablets, required by the use of written Chinese characters. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of books, on subjects ranging from Confucian Classics to science and mathematics, were printed using the older technology of woodblock printing, creating the world’s first print culture.[7].

In contrast, the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press in Europe was comparable to the development of writing, the invention of thealphabet or the Internet, as far as its effects on society. Just as writing did not replace speaking, printing did not achieve a position of total dominance. Handwritten manuscripts continued to be produced, and the different graphic modes of communication continued to influence each other.

The printing press was also a factor in the establishment of a community of scientists who could easily communicate their discoveries through the establishment of widely disseminated scholarly journals, helping to bring on the scientific revolution. Because of the printing press, authorship became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what, and what the precise formulation and time of composition was. This allowed the exact citing of references, producing the rule, “One Author, one work (title), one piece of information” (Giesecke, 1989; 325). Before, the author was less important, since a copy ofAristotle made in Paris would not be exactly identical to one made in Bologna. For many works prior to the printing press, the name of the author was entirely lost.

Because the printing process ensured that the same information fell on the same pages, page numbering, tables of contents, and indices became common, though they previously had not been unknown. The process of reading was also changed, gradually changing over several centuries from oral readings to silent, private reading. The wider availability of printed materials also led to a drastic rise in the adult literacy rate throughout Europe.

Within fifty or sixty years of the invention of the printing press, the entire classical canon had been reprinted and widely promulgated throughout Europe (Eisenstein, 1969; 52). Now that more people had access to knowledge both new and old, more people could discuss these works. Furthermore, now that book production was a more commercial enterprise, the first copyright laws were passed to protect what we now would call intellectual property rights. A second outgrowth of this popularization of knowledge was the decline of Latin as the language of most published works, to be replaced by the vernacular language of each area, increasing the variety of published works. Paradoxically, the printing word also helped to unify and standardize the spelling and syntax of these vernaculars, in effect ‘decreasing’ their variability. This rise in importance of national languages as opposed to pan-European Latin is cited as one of the causes of the rise of nationalism in Europe.

[edit]The art of book printing

For years, book printing was considered a true art form. Typesetting, or the placement of the characters on the page, including the use of ligatures, was passed down from master to apprentice. In Germany, the art of typesetting was termed the “black art,” in allusion to the ink-covered printers. The Black Art Press & Print in Baltimore, MD adopted their name for this reason. It has largely been replaced by computer typesetting programs, which make it easy to get similar results more quickly and with less physical labor. Some practitioners continue to print books the way Gutenberg did. For example, there is a yearly convention of traditional book printers in Mainz, Germany.

Some theorists, such as McLuhanEisensteinKittler, and Giesecke, see an “alphabetic monopoly” as having developed from printing, removing the role of the image from society. Other authors stress that printed works themselves are a visual medium. Certainly, modern developments in printing have revitalized the role of illustrations.

Gutenberg Elegies: duration and distraction


Right away as I begin the reading (my second time–I read the 1994 edition earlier this summer) I hear and see in the new introduction lots of oppositions and antinomies, phrases that indicate and figure what reading is (for SB) vs. what technology has done to reading. I am going to list a few here as I keep reading, then go back to one or two and dig in, see what I notice about these oppositions.

digital bit vs. material atom

life hurried and fragmented by technology vs. life slow and frustrating, vivid in material totality (xii)

deep transformation in the nature of reading: shift from focused, text-centered engagement to far more lateral kind of encounter (restless, grazing, clicking, scrolling): xiv

duration vs. distraction; counter-technology (anti-technology) vs. technology

page vs. screen


I am noticing a fairly narrow defintion (and from this, narrow view) of ‘technology.’ The phrase “counter-technology of the book” raises a problem. He is so sharply defining things in terms of the binary opposition book vs. technology, he neglects historical perspective on book technology. The book is a technology–as is the writing it contains. Indeed, he glides over the fact that book publication was a major technological invention and innovation; and that the digital revolution is often thought of as the most transformational invention since the printing press. I first went to this book (and thought it would be helpful in the course) wanting more historical perspective on what “Gutenberg” means for literature and reading–in other words, what the technology of reading/writing books is about and how that compares/contrasts with more recent technologies of reading and writing in digital environments. Thus far, I don’t see much historical perspective on what “book” means; rather, see him taking the object of a book for granted–and assuming that its main difference from the ‘electronic’ text (screen, etc) is that the book is an actual object whereas the other is not. But books are made from printing technologies–and still made from printing technologies that have migrated to digital formats and still involve electronic components [a point that Katherine Hayles will make]. And aren’t digital technologies such as computer screens objects?


On page xiv he defines “Literature” very narrowly as fiction–then asserts that fiction is under assault by nonfiction. What’s up with his view of nonfiction? Is he adding fiction vs. nonfiction to the reading vs. technology list of binaries? Is nonfictional somehow more technological and fiction more artful? This is where these binaries get interesting because they start to slip and slide. One of the things I particularly wonder: he includes ‘memoir’ in his definition of nonfiction–yet his own book (also nonfiction) relies on autobiographical perspective and experince, as he tells us in the introduction. His focus is on something he calls “private self.” A contradiction?

Does the ‘digital bit’ have material atoms in it?

What does he mean by reverie?