How Google Is Making Us Smarter


While reading the first few chapters of Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, the section in chapter one titled “(Using) the Internet Makes Us Stupid (or Not)” really related to me. I constantly hear my friends say things like “autocorrect is making us stupid”, and “We’d be nothing without Google”, but I’ve always thought the complete opposite.

On page 52, Rheingold introduced and explained Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He went on to say:

“A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole.”

I don’t understand how Carr has skewed this situation, but I feel the exact opposite. People Google information they do not know, or else they wouldn’t need to Google it. The “few words or sentences” that are generated from their searches are specifically what they needed to know. Regardless of whether or not they read the entire document, they have already learned something that they will not forget.

Carr feels, “We are substituting the web for personal memory, and emptying our minds”. However, I do not forget the information I look up on Google, ever. He’s thinking along the lines of easy come easy go, but that’s really not the case in this situation. In terms of neuroplasticity, I feel we’re actually training ourselves to absorb more information than ever before in the history of human existence.

I can go through more information online in a year than my grandmother has in her entire lifetime. I have the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, at my disposal whenever I feel like conjuring it. Our generation are masters of information, we’re experts at searching and locating exactly what we want to know in a matter of seconds.

Carr says, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it”, and we engage in, “nonlinear, scattered, perpetual scanning at the expense of depth and concentration”. I think my skipping and skimming habits are more like an ability to speed-read and pinpoint information I’m actually looking for than an Internet based attention deficit disorder. Web based authors also format their documents for this purpose, making information easier to find in less time.

In situations where readers need more elaborate explanations of the subject of interest, references to “traditional” texts are always linked to the content. In just a simple click, we jump from the “few words or sentences” to a printable PDF version of a book, or a link to buy a hard copy on Amazon.

It’s law in the United States for every child to attend school, or else their parents are held responsible. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, American illiteracy rates have been around 14% for the past 10 years, I highly doubt Google has been as influential as immigration, poverty, or drug usage. Most Americans are capable of reading, and will read in the traditional sense when the occasion calls for it. It’s simply a matter of optimizing time, effort, and using discretion.

As Rheingold said on page 52, “A search query, like a Wikipedia page, is often a bad place to end your inquiry, but an excellent place to start”. In most cases readers jump through multiple pages of information, and have the option of a robust explanation of what they are looking for through multiple resources. Google and sites like Wikipedia put them on track to find these resources, and long form text is always an option.

Tools like Google, Wikipedia and even autocorrect give us instant answers and correction that we wouldn’t have without it. Is it better to not have access to information outside of a 2000 page book, or to instantly get what you’re looking for with the option of exploring additional resources?

Posted on October 18, 2015, in Digital, Literacy, Society. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi Natasha,

    You raise some great points about how Google is making us smarter. I have learned so much using Google over the years, and I have saved a lot of time using Google as well. I used to go to the library and pour over several books for hours to find an answer to one thing. As you may have seen already in a few of our scholarly texts, the geniuses do not always like to give the answers up front, or their answers are so generalized that you wonder why you even bothered.

    But with Google, the answers are there immediately. But if the answer is not correct, because the source probably is not credible, within seconds you can try again with a more credible source. Finding out which sources are credible and which ones are not, is easy. Even Rheingold explained how to do this.

    Thus, I am very happy to be able to seek answers online and instead of in books. While I may underline things in books to use later in homework, it can take me up to fifteen minutes to find that quote since I have underlined so many things. I wish that I could magically call up the page that the exact quote that I need is on.

  2. Hi Natasha,

    You make a great case for Google making us smarter, and I agree the benefits are tremendous. I think the point of Carr’s statement about the Internet scattering our attention has more to do with type of focus required to do that “traditional” reading you speak of. The problem is that we’ve become reliant on technology to do what we used to – focus, search, and “deep” reading. Now we do as you say, type in a word or phrase and them skim and scan. An issue is that it’s become the sole way of searching for information, including in academia, and we’re often trying to do several things at once.

    Multi-tasking doesn’t actually work and it does scatter our brain, as proven by many scientists. I think a bigger point is that when we’re “multi-tasking” on Google and other sites is that we aren’t doing the kind of reading that translates into our long-term memory. The problem with “optimizing” time in this manner is that it’s in direct contrast to the much-needed “mindfulness” Remember reading a book silently; it brought about contemplation, allowed our minds to become creative and imaginative, and helped us learn to slow down and focus. We aren’t doing that on Google. And yes, web-based authors do format their documents for easy scanning, making information easier to find in less time. But should they; isn’t it the equivalent of “dumbing down?”

  3. Hi Natasha. I really enjoyed your post this week. I would agree with you that the Internet is allowing us to fulfill and have access to more and more information. I also agree that it allows to maintain and remember certain things. I’m not sure if you have ever experienced this, but often when I have random thoughts I Google it and once I have my answer it’s like a small weight lifted off of my shoulders. I feel like I can briefly pat myself on my back and then move on. But interestingly enough, when it comes to truly focusing on longer-term, job-related tasks, I find that my mind wonders more to these little questions that I want to continually answer. I almost wonder if Google is broaching being addictive in this sense of over indulgence or wanting/needing to find answers.

    And, although it might center our scattered thoughts, does it cause us to become more and more scattered as time goes on if we are essentially avoiding other important areas in our focal stream?

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