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For this discussion you will read one of the most important modern
examples of cause-effect writing, Nicholas Carr’ essay “Is Google Making
Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” (p. 355), and you
will answer the following questions on the essay.
1) Describe the essayâ??s opening strategy and whether you think it was
effective at getting the readersâ?? attention and introducing Carrâ??s topic (the
negative effects of technology), why or why not?
2) Carr draws attention to an assumption of Sergey Brin and Larry Pageâ??
that weâ??d all â??be better offâ? if our brains were supplemented, or even
replaced, by an artificial intelligence. Why does Carr think this assumption
is unsettling? How is questioning the assumption important to Carrâ??s
point?
3) After consistently explaining the negative effects of technology, where
does the skeptical Carr admit that new technologies can sometimes be
beneficial and what examples does he use? Why do you think itâ??s
important that he does so?
4) What does Carr think we will sacrifice if we lose the â??quiet spaces
opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any act
of contemplation��? Do you agree or disagree, and why?
5) What particular aspect of media (its convenience, its popularity, its
ability to connect us, etc.) do you think has most changed the way people
think and live?
Name: ___Sha Hongkun______________________________
Four Types of Sentences
Directions: Identify each type of sentence and explain your answer.
Types of Sentences: declarative, imperative, exclamatory, and interrogative.
1. The students wanted to go on a field trip.
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
2. Can we go to the Adventureville Theme Park?
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
3. Be on your best behavior for the next two weeks.
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
4. After a couple long weeks of keeping their hands to themselves, quietly focusing on instruction, and
cleaning up their messes, the students were rewarded with a fieldtrip.
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
5. We are so excited about going to Adventureville!
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
6. How far away is the park from the school and what time do we have to come home?
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
7. But, the park is three hours away from the school and weâ??ll have to be back by 3:00 for the busses!
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
8. Quit asking questions and just be happy.
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
9. But, if it takes us six hours to get there and back, and we have to be back by 3:00, weâ??ll only be able
to stay for thirty minutes.
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
10. The students wondered why they were going to Adventureville.
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
11. But thatâ??s not much time because the conference is next week!
Type: ________________________ Why? _______________________________________________
12-15. Write one declarative sentences, one interrogative sentences, one imperative sentences,
and one exclamatory sentence. Once youâ??re finished youâ??ll upload your completed homework to the
drop box.
Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our
Brains
Nicholas Carr
The following essay appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic. While the title asks if Google is making us stupid, the essay examines how not just Google, but technology (typewriters, clocks, the Internet) changes
the way we think. Nicholas Carr is author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
â??Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?â? So the supercomputer HAL pleads with
the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of
Stanley Kubrickâ??s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by
the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its
artificial brain. â??Dave, my mind is going,â? HAL says, forlornly. â??I can feel it. I can feel it.â?
I can feel it, too. Over the past few years Iâ??ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something,
has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My
mind isnâ??t goingâ??so far as I can tellâ??but itâ??s changing. Iâ??m not thinking the way I used to think. I can
feel it most strongly when Iâ??m reading. 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 Iâ??d spend hours
strolling through long stretches of prose. Thatâ??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. I feel as if Iâ??m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that
used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know whatâ??s going on. For more than a decade now, Iâ??ve been spending a lot of time online,
searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Inter- net. The Web has
been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms
of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and
Iâ??ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when Iâ??m not working, Iâ??m as likely as not to
be foraging in the Webâ??s info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog
posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike
footnotes, to which theyâ??re some- times likened, hyperlinks donâ??t merely point to related works; they
propel you toward them.)
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the
information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having
immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and theyâ??ve been widely
described and duly applauded. â??The perfect recall of silicon memory,â? Wiredâ??s
356 Chapter 11 Searching for Causes
Clive Thompson has written, â??can be an enormous boon to thinking.â? But that boon comes at a price.
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive
channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.
And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and
contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a
swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the
surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Iâ??m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintancesâ??
literary types, most of themâ??many say theyâ??re having similar experiences. The more they use the
Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I
follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online
media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. â??I was a lit major in college,
and used to be [a] voracious book reader,â? he wrote. â??What happened?â? He speculates on the answer:
â??What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e., Iâ??m just
seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?�
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how
the Internet has altered his mental habits. â??I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and
absorb a longish article on the web or in print,� he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long
been on the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his
comment in a telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a â??staccatoâ?
quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. â??I canâ??t
read War and Peace anymore,â? he admitted. â??Iâ??ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more
than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.�
Anecdotes alone donâ??t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological
experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cog- nition. But a
recently published study of online research habits, conducted by scholars from University College
London, suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As
part of the five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the
behavior of visitors to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a
U.K. educational consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of
written information. They found that people using the sites exhib- ited â??a form of skimming activity,â?
hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source theyâ??d already visited. They
typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would â??bounceâ? out to
another site. Sometimes theyâ??d save a long article, but thereâ??s no evidence that they ever went back
and actually read it. The authors of the study report:
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new
forms of â??readingâ? are emerging as users â??power browseâ? horizontally through titles, contents pages
and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the
traditional sense.
Nicholas Carr Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 357
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text- messaging on
cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television
was our medium of choice. But itâ??s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of
thinkingâ??perhaps even a new sense of the self. â??We are not only what we read,â? says Maryanne
Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts Uni- versity and the author of Proust and the Squid: The
Story and Science of the Reading Brain, â??We are how we read.â? Wolf worries that the style of reading
promoted by the Net, a style that puts â??efficiencyâ? and â??immediacyâ? above all else, may be weakening
our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing
press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend
to become â??mere decoders of information.â? Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental
connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. Itâ??s not etched into our genes the
way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic char- acters we see into the
language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the
craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments
demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading
that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an
alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such
essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can
expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our
reading of books and other printed works.
Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriterâ??a Malling-Hansen Writ- ing Ball, to be
precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and
painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he
feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he
had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his
fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.
But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzscheâ??s friends, a composer, noticed a
change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic.
â??Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,â? the friend wrote in a letter,
noting that, in his own work, his â??â??thoughtsâ?? in music and language often depend on the quality of pen
and paper.�
â??You are right,â? Nietzsche replied, â??our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.â?
Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzscheâ??s
prose â??changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram
style.�
358 Chapter 11 Searching for Causes
The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the
dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by
the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discov- ered that thatâ??s not the case.
James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at
George Mason University, says that even the adult mind â??is very plastic.â? Nerve cells routinely break
old connections and form new ones. â??The brain,â? according to Olds, â??has the ability to reprogram
itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.�
As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our â??intellectual technologiesâ?â??the tools that
extend our mental rather than our physical capacitiesâ??we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of
those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides
a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cul- tural critic Lewis Mumford
described how the clock â??disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an
independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.â? The â??abstract framework of divided
timeâ? became â??the point of reference for both action and thought.â?
The clockâ??s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But
it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his
1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the
world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments â??remains an impoverished
version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experi- ences that formed the basis
for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.� In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we
stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.
The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we
use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of
their brains as operating â??like clockwork.â? Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of
them as operating â??like computers.â? But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than
metaphor. Thanks to our brainâ??s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.
The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in
1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time
existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other
information-processing device. And thatâ??s what weâ??re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably
powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. Itâ??s becoming
our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and
our radio and TV.
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Netâ??s image. It injects the
mediumâ??s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it sur- rounds the
content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance,
may announce its arrival as weâ??re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaperâ??s site. The result
is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
The Netâ??s influence doesnâ??t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As peopleâ??s minds become
attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt
Nicholas Carr Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 359
to the audienceâ??s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and
magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their
pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, The New York Times decided to
devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts, its design director, Tom
Bodkin, explained that the â??shortcutsâ? would give harried readers a quick â??tasteâ? of the dayâ??s news,
sparing them the â??less efficientâ? method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old
media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.
Never has a communications system played so many roles in our livesâ??or exerted such broad
influence over our thoughtsâ??as the Internet does today. Yet, for all thatâ??s been written about the Net,
thereâ??s been little consideration of how, exactly, itâ??s reprogramming us. The Netâ??s intellectual ethic
remains obscure.
About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named
Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadel- phia and
began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plantâ??s machinists.
With the approval of Midvaleâ??s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on
various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every move- ment as well as the
operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and
then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructionsâ??an
â??algorithm,â? we might say todayâ??for how each worker should work. Midvaleâ??s employees grumbled
about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the
factoryâ??s productivity soared.
More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at
last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylorâ??s tight industrial choreographyâ??his â??system,â?
as he liked to call itâ??was embraced by manufacturers through- out the country and, in time, around
the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum effi- ciency, and maximum output, factory owners
used time-and-motion studies to organize …
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