To celebrate the Atlantic’s current issue with the thought provoking cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, the publishers of Australian current affairs periodical The Monthly are sending their friends from across the pond an online gift subscription.
This ‘gift’ includes access to the Monthly archive and Gideon Haigh’s award-winning essay published in February 2006, “How Google is Making Us Stupid.”
Yes, it’s another fracas between magazine publishers.
At Anthill, we haven’t been so outraged since SmartCompany.com.au decided to run an article titled ‘30 hot entrepreneurs aged 30 and under’ just 10 days before the long-publicised release of Anthill’s inaugural 30under30 awards.
Or since Dynamic Business ran its ‘Disaster Strikes’ cover two months after Anthill’s highly successful and trend-breaking ‘Disaster Edition.’
Or since Fast Thinking decided to launch in Australia because Australia didn’t have a magazine dedicated to innovation (What the!?).
Actually, I’m not outraged at all. I’m not outraged about the Atlantic article or my spurious accusations above (although I did gain personal pleasure from airing them).
No. Personally, I’m just proud that an Australian organisation is creating debate around the world. And I’m flattered that our ideas are entering the ‘zeitgeist’ and finding traction elsewhere.
Fortunately, the list of examples and controversial claims above also serve my purpose, by not-so serendipitously leading me back to the opening question.
If new technologies are making it easier for anyone to uncover and apply the ideas of others from around the globe, if Google is providing us with the answer to almost any question we can ask, if technology is overcoming the need to think cognitively or make personal deductions… is Google making us dumb?
The debate is obviously more complex than that.
Atlantic contributor Nicholas Carr makes the observation that, because media are not just passive channels of information, because they supply the stuff of thought, they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at our 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,” he says.
At least, I think that was his main bone. I was too busy checking out a link on sea-turtles.
The Monthly’s Haig seems to be more upset at the effectiveness of Google as a tool for plagiarism and its ability to effectively convey misinformation.
Ultimately, a good angle is a memorable angle, just as surely as a good idea is infectious. And it’s impossible to prevent a good angle/idea from turning viral.
Personally, I doubt that any concept, cover story or angle that has appeared in any magazine, including Anthill, has ever been truly original, untouched by outside forces, and Google is not to blame. Quite simply, an idea can’t percolate in a vacuum (and all publishers rely on cultural mores, means and schemas to connect with our readers).
This statement includes the examples given above (from Google’s effect to business disasters and apple motifs). Yes, it might shock and amaze, but Anthill was not the first to focus on disasters, use apples on our cover or write about innovation.
The challenge is making sure that new thinkers understand the distinction between plagiarism and the proper means of sharing ideas – giving credit where credit’s due.
Is Google making us dumb? I suspect that Carr is right in one sense. It is changing the way we think and analyse information, but possibly it’s doing so in a way that’s no different to the effect the mass production of books had on the way we reason and communicate.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.”
Fortunately, I don’t need to be scholar in Greek history to know this tid bit of information. I just applied an example provided by Carr, verbatim (I plagiarised with credit, or is that an oxymoron?).
Like writing, books and libraries, Google and other search engines (and the web) are opening us up to perspectives and experiences, many of which were previously inaccessible and impossible to share cheaply .
So, to mashup an old quote with a new setting (searched and found using Google, edited and manipulated using my wee, human brain)…
If we can all see further from the shoulders of giants, I’m just grateful for the comfy perch, steering system and dashboard that search engines have provided.
And I, for one, feel smarter for it.
*UPDATE: It seems that the battle of “similar” ideas is not confined to print publications, with Channel Seven now being accused of ripping off an Apple iPod TVC with its new TiVo promotions. Seven’s riposte? “There’s no copyright in an idea.”