Erik Larson

Dec 30, 2013

Whoops! Idiocracy

In the last section, we surveyed the rise of search, focusing on (who else?) Google, and saw how Google’s insight about human judgments in HTML links propelled Web search into the modern era. In this vein, then, we can see the beginning of the entire social revolution (roughly, from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and on) as a story of the beginning of “real” Web search with Google’s PageRank idea. Yet we ended this feel-good section back where we started, with all the original worry about the Web making us stupid, a view given recent voice by folks like Carr and Lanier, and even more recently with the latest The Atlantic Cities article on the dangers of photo sharing; fretting now about our memories and memory formation in the Instagram-age (always, alas, worried about our brains online). What gives? This is our question.

Before answering it, though, it’ll be helpful to review the general landscape we’ve been traversing. Back to the beginning, then, we have:

(1) Increasingly, smart people are worrying about the downside of modern technological culture (basically, “Web culture”). Indeed, studies now emerging from cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggest that there’s a real, actual threat to our cognitive selves on the Web (our brains and brain activities like memory, attention, and learning).

(2) As a corollary of (1), the picayune dream of something like instrumentalism—we use a technology as we wish, and it doesn’t really change us in the process—is almost certainly false with respect to Web culture.

(3) From (1) and (2), the Web seems to be changing us, and not entirely (or even mostly , depending on how moody one is) for the better.

(4) But the Web seems like the very paragon of progress, and indeed, we’ve been at pains in the last section to explain how the Web (or Web search with Google) is really all about people. It’s all about people-smarts, we’ve argued, and so how can something about us turn out to be bad for us? Isn’t the “Web” really just our own, ingenious way of compiling and making searchable and accessible all the content we think and write and communicate about, anyway?

(5) And so, from (1)-(4), we get our question: what gives ?

That’s our summary, then. And now we’re in a position to address (5), or at least we’ve got enough of a review of the terrain to have a fresh go at it now. To begin, let’s make some more distinctions.

More Distinctions (or, Three Ways the Web Might be Bad). These are general points about Web culture, and we might classify them roughly as (1) Bad Medium (2) Distracting Environment, and (3) Trivial Content.

(1) Bad Medium

For years, people have noted in anecdotes and general hunches or preferences the differences between physical books and electronic Web pages. Back in 2000, for instance, in the halcyon days of the Web, noted researchers like John Seeley Brown (who admittedly worked for Zerox) and Paul Diguid argued in The Social Life of Information that “learning” experiences from printed material seem to be of a qualitatively different sort then “learning” experiences we get from reading lighted bits on an artificial screen. Books, somehow, are more immersive; we tend to engage a book, where we’re tempted reading text on a Web page to skim, instead. We might call this an umbrella objection to taking the Web too seriously, right from the get go, and I think there’s some real teeth in it. But onward…

(2) Distracting Environment

Much of Carr’s points in his original Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and later in his book The Shallows are (2) type objections. Roughly speaking, you can view Carr’s point (and the research he points to that suggests his point is valid) as something akin to the well-known psychological result that people faced with endless choices tend to report less intrinsic satisfaction in their lives. It’s like that on the Web, roughly. If I can read my email, take in a number of tweets, get Facebook updates, field some IM, and execute a dozen searches all in fifteen minutes, it’s hard to see in practical terms how I’m doing anything, well, deep. Any real cognitive activity that requires focus and concentration is already in pretty bad straights in this type of I-can-have-anything-all-the-time information environment. And, again, for those tempted to play the instrumentalist card (where we argue that in theory we can concentrate, we just need to discipline ourselves online), we have a growing number of brain and behavioral studies surfacing that suggest the problem is actually intrinsic to the Web environment. In other words, we can’t just “try harder” to stay on track (though it’s hard to see how this would hurt); there’s something about our connection to information on the Web that actively mitigates against contemplation and concentration of the kind required to really, thoroughly engage or learn something. As Carr summarizes our condition, we’re in The Shallows. And since we’re online more and more, day after day, we’re heading for more shallows.

(3) Trivial Content

Much of Lanier’s arguments in his You Are Not a Gadget are explorations of (3). Likewise, someone like former tech-guy Andrew Keen advances objections of the Trivial Content sort in his The Cult of the Amateur. As I think Lanier’s observations are more trenchant, we’ll stick mostly to his ideas. Trivial Content is really at the heart of what I wish to advance in this piece, actually, so to this we’ll turn in the next section.

Whoops! Idiocracy