Google CEO Worries that Google Is Making Us Stupid
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.