I regularly follow Bill Thompson’s columns on Online Issues at the BBC’s website – see the Blogroll here for a link to Bill’s personal blog – and recently re-read this item which I found very interesting indeed.
In it he comments on the idea expressed by Nick Carr – that Google and it’s ilk on the Internet might actually be diminishing our capacity for thinking. There is also a little backing from neurologist Susan Greenfield for the idea, in that the way we take in information from modern media is different to how we’ve taken in information (by more direct experience) for the last couple of million years. In other words, there may be a bit of re-wiring going on…
Now, what really interested me here was that it actually supports a vague suspicion I have that my own mental faculties have changed in recent years. I’ve also witnessed it in others, and heard people complain about the fact that ‘They can’t settle down to read’, for example. Just watch people around you – we seem to spend an awful lot of time when we are mentally engaged in ‘information surfing’. We used to joke about MTV Attention Spans and ‘soundbite politics’ – how long before we start commenting on your ‘Googlespan’ rather than your attention span?
Experience in administering and contributing to numerous online discussion forums and mailing lists has also exposed me to what I think are changes in the style of discourse. Ignoring the ‘slanging matches’ I’ve noticed more use of links to things like blogs and wikis without any interpretation of the target link by the poster. Sometimes this is appropriate, but sometimes the relevance of the link to the ‘guts’ of the issue at hand seems to be tenuous or requires ‘drawing out’ from the material referenced. In either case, I’d expect the referenced material to be developed in the discussion; without this development it often appears that the poster is simply ‘Google Bombing’ the discussion with a load of references designed more to give the appearance of knowledge than the actual knowledge itself.
After all, Googling a topic rarely takes more than a few minutes; understanding the material returned, cross referencing it, checking it’s particular bias or accuracy – these are the parts of the process of Internet research that take the time if done properly. I guess I’m concerned about laziness or, in some cases, posters exhibiting intellectual intimidation by simply attempting to floor people with their apparent erudition. How one determines whether soemone is lazy, intimidating or simply assumes people know as much as they do is a good point for discussion!
Perhaps we should all take a few steps to stop the rot in our own thinking.
One starting point is to search for knowledge, not to point score. Resist the temptation to Google for facts in a topic about we know nothing, purely to win a debating point. After all, shouldn’t you be engaging in that debate with at least a grasp of the basic issues involved? Now, don’t get me wrong here; I’m not saying don’t Google; I’m saying Google in the heat of debate to get clarification and detail, not to get ‘first time exposure’ to the issues. If you see a debate that looks interesting but of which you know nothing, then take soem quality time out to read around the issue from a number of online sources and – dare I say it – the odd book or magazine article? After all, if it’s worth your time debating it, it’s worth doing well.
Secondly – know and question your sources. See what other ersources are referenced. regard anything without at least a couple of supporting ‘quality’ references as an debate-pieces rather than it necessarily being afctually correct.
Read deep as well as wide; too often people see something that appears to support their point of view and then stop reading.
Let’s see what we can do to stop the ‘fast food’ approach to our acquisition of information. We should be acquiring information, to improve our knowledge, and from that develop wisdom in the application of that hard earned knowldge. Read deep and wide and continue the tradition of the centuries.
Now, stop reading this and grab a book.