Is Google making us stupid, as Rough Type blogger Nicholas Carr (above left) asks in the latest issue of Atlantic magazine? Or is pop culture, along with video games, making people smarter, as Malcolm Gladwell (above right) asked in a New Yorker article three years ago?
Carr laments the Internet has reduced his powers of concentration and habit of sustained reading because he has got used to searching the Net and getting information instantly. He says:
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 I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after.
But he adds:
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.
But reading is not the only source of intelligence, says Gladwell. Playing video games and even watching television can sharpen intelligence. And modern-day soap operas like The Sopranos have become more complex than their earlier counterparts, he says, quoting Steven Johnson:
A typical episode of “Starsky and Hutch,” in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a decisive conclusion… A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot.
Johnson develops the same argument about video games…
They don’t have a set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed during the course of play. This is why many of us find modern video games baffling: we’re not used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do.
It doesn’t seem right, of course, that watching “24” or playing a video game could be as important cognitively as reading a book.
The point is that books and video games represent two very different kinds of learning. When you read a biology textbook, the content of what you read is what matters. Reading is a form of explicit learning. When you play a video game, the value is in how it makes you think.
Being “smart” involves facility in both kinds of thinking—the kind of fluid problem solving that matters in things like video games and I.Q. tests, but also the kind of crystallized knowledge that comes from explicit learning.
Personally, I am clueless about video games and don’t care for soaps. I will stick to books and the Net. And if that’s not enough to get smarter, there’s nothing to be done about it. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.