Google CEO Worries that Google Is Making Us Stupid

Google CEO Eric Schmidt speaking at a past World Economic Forum (2008)

Okay, so the headline I gave to this post is a bit slanted for rhetorical effect. When Eric Schmidt, Google’s 54-year-old chief execusive and chairman, spoke last Friday, January 29 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he didn’t actually repeat and respond to the question contained in the sensationalistic headline of Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”

But, as reported by news outlets everywhere, he did voice some of the same concerns that Carr highlighted, and in very direct and forceful terms, too. Specifically, he expressed concern that today’s young people are experiencing serious impairment in their ability to perform “deep reading” as they grow up in our frenetic, buzzing, always-online environment of mobile electronic devices.

Even more specifically, he told his audience of world economic movers and shakers,

The one [thing] that I do worry about is the question of “deep reading”….As the world looks to these instantaneous devices…you spend less time reading all forms of literature, books, magazines and so forth….That probably has an effect on cognition, probably has an effect on reading.

Now that’s interesting! And it’s also — to give credit where scads are due — not all that surprising. Schmidt isn’t just mouthing these concerns, and his focus on them isn’t new. For instance, when he spoke in 2009 at the University of Pennsylvania’s commencement ceremony, he urged the new graduates to turn off their computers and discover the non-computerized world of human relationships and the natural environment.

And, interestingly, he may have been led at least in part to concentrate on such things by Carr’s very article, as recounted by Carr himself in a response to Schmidt’s Davos speech (“Eric Schmidt’s Second Thoughts,” Jan. 30). Carr traces how, first, Schmidt responded publicly to the “Stupid” article in 2008 by pointing out that people made the same ominous claims about plummeting intelligence levels and attention spans when color television was introduced, when MTV was launched, etc., and yet today “we’re smarter than ever.” But then a few months later, in early 2009, Schmidt told Charlie Rose,

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.
 And I worry that we’re losing that.

And then came the Davos speech in early 2010.

Carr comments, “I’m glad Schmidt has continued to ponder this issue, and I salute him for having the courage to air his concerns publicly.”

To which I respond with a hearty “Ditto,” a thousand times over. For what it’s worth, I shamelessly love Google’s search engine, and have found myself deriving lots of benefit from some of its associated tools over the past year and two (Calendar, Reader, et al.). So I certainly can’t bash the company with a straight face. But its Leviathan-like rise to dominance is certainly valid cause for concern. A host of troubling moral questions arise from Google’s pervasive influence, as seen in its de facto ability to make or break businesses and companies with a mere tweak of its search algorithm, its veritably one-handed role in giving rise to SEO as a dominant marketing concern, its inherent growth into a threat to every business sector that it enters, and so on. And thus it’s deeply encouraging to see that Schmidt, who wields so much power over today’s social and business environment, possesses not just a high IQ and business smarts (he obviously didn’t attain the position of Google CEO by being a dummy) but a reflective sensibility for deeply human concerns to boot.

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something.
 And I worry that we’re losing that

Image Credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0

About Matt Cardin


Posted on February 2, 2010, in Internet & Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    I’d bring up a larger issue: capitalism itself, especially American capitalism.

    Google is a large corporation. So, what is the impact of having a society dominated by large corporations? And what is the impact of having a society dominated by corporate culture?

    In the US, many people work 60-80 hours a week. Many families have both parents working. People are stressed and tired and they often just don’t have the time. Also, unlike many European countries, Americans have less vacation time and less free time on their days off.

    However, none of this is inevitable with any of this technology. Google could still exist in a society where people only worked 30-40 hours, where only one parent in a family worked, and where employees had guaranteed weekends off and guaranteed extended vacation time.

    The ultimate question is: What is primarily causing all of this?

    It was predicted earlier last century that people would work less in the future. At that time, the average American was beginning to make more money than ever before. They could have worked less, but our culture is about constantly getting more, constantly getting ahead. Americans chose not to work less and companies were happy with that. More hours of work per employee means fewer employees and thus less money spent on employees (health insurance, training, etc).

    Related to this is the subject of community and a sense of place. People think less deeply in general when they are constantly moving around, constantly chasing a career. To think deeply requires settling into place. It’s built on getting to know a particular community and environment over years and decades.

    Long before Google and the internet, Americans were obsessively working long hours and constantly moving. In fact, the transitory and work ethic of Americans goes back to the beginning of the country. Tocqueville, for example, observed how Americans would move to a new place often before even having finished building their last house.

    Assuming such a lifestyle is dysfunctional, what has been causing this dysfunction for centuries?

    • As usual, you appear to have honed in on the heart of the issue in question, Benjamin. Yes, the phenomenon that’s being manifested through Google definitely predated Google, and appears to be inherent in the American psyche. As always, new technology is merely enabling and, in what’s become typical for our modern-day culture of gigantism, magnifying what’s already in us. At the same time, the pressures and influences specific to this particular techology are working synergistically with the preexisting motivation.

      One can’t help thinking, or at least *I* can’t help thinking, of the whole thing in semi-poetic terms: Google and the Internet in general are creating an “America unbound” situation. Are they perhaps the perfect technological vehicle for the peculiarly American worldview, ideology, and mindset/motivation?

      • Benjamin David Steele

        You explained it in a very clear way. The whole internet is a very American way of relating to the world. If you have a society built on constantly moving, you need an information system that can easily go where people go. Much of technological advancement in recent centuries has been how to more effectively and efficiently move people and info from place to place.

        The internet, however, is a very unique phenomenon. It isn’t just an expression of the collective American psyche. It’s actually a vehicle for further spreading the American mental disease around the world and into every nook and cranny of every community. The world must be connected! The vastness of factoid-sphere must be foist upon all of humanity!

        Assimilation is the name of the game.

        You can run, but you cannot hide. The info web will find you. Build a shack in the wilderness and before long there will be a cell tower built next to you.

        I was just thinking what is the next step after every human is jacked in. Is it fair that we should leave nature out of this wonderful new world? Why shouldn’t trees also be given the opportunity to use social media to stay in contact with the other trees? The only problem is for advertisers to find a way to target trees as a specific consumer demographic.

        When you think about it, is Google a vehicle for knowledge or a vehicle for advertising and profit? What I mean is that the type of ‘knowledge’ that is profitable may not be of the kind that encourages deep thinking. So, the question is this: Would there be a way for society to create an internet that is based on value beyond just profit value? Originally, the internet wasn’t created for profit, but it has almost been entirely taken over by those seeking profit. Is Google’s success conducive to or contrary to society’s success?

        • Your comments call to mind a recent and worthwhile article about the trajectory of the Internet from its original Edenic envisioning to its current corporate consumer-driven incarnation. I figure you’ve already read or seen it, but in case not:

          Two decades of the web: a utopia no longer” – Evgeny Morozov, Prospect, June 22, 2011.

          A key paragraph at the end conveys the overall thesis: “The founding fathers of the internet had laudable instincts: the utopian vision of the internet as a shared space to maximise communal welfare is a good template to work from. But they got co-opted by big money, and became trapped in the self-empowerment discourse that was just an ideological ruse to conceal the interests of big companies and minimise government intervention.”

      • Benjamin David Steele

        Thanks for sharing the article. I don’t think I’ve come across it before.

        Many early internet innovators were naively idealistic in their technophilia. They envisioned an anarchist utopia where knowledge and discourse would be free from all authoritarian control and bureaucracy.

        It’s related to the radical visions of laissez-faire utopia where the invisible hand will maintain freedom and fairness without the need for any government regulation, democratic control, or public responsibility. What such people don’t understand is that big biz is just as prone as big guv to the temptations of concentrated power. Many transnational corporations are hierarchical bureaucracies run like fascist fiefdoms or communist mini-states.

        Google, of course, is one of these transnational corporations that transcends nearly all local politics and democratic influence.

  1. Pingback: Is stupidity making us Google? | followthehumming

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