Posted by: lcowie | November 29, 2008


Is Google making us stupid? We say no.

Elon community responds to claims that Google negatively alters brain

by Lesley Cowie

In order to check his calendar for the day, Jonathan Citty must turn on his laptop and open his Google account. After reviewing the day’s agenda, Citty decides to check his email. Once again, he logs into his Google account.

Millions of Internet users worldwide rely on Google for efficient responses and services to their multitude of needs. As like many others, Citty utilizes a variety of Google’s 44 applications.

“I use Google for search, calendar, email, online videos, stocks, and online documents,” said Citty, a junior at Elon University. “I use Google because they provide an all-inclusive web service that has everything that I need and enables me to connect to the information anywhere I go.”

Nicholas Carr, courtesy of

Nicholas Carr, courtesy of

This convenience of information is the impetus behind Nicholas Carr’s notable article titled, “Is Google making us stupid? The editorial, published in the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, questions whether or not Google’s convenience and efficiency in performing diverse tasks lessens the ability for human beings to perform the same tasks without the aid of a machine.

“And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” Carr wrote. “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.”

According to Carr, Google has the potential to change the way peoples’ minds work. While many believe that reading stories online is merely a convenience, Carr believes this preference is a result of how the thought process has changed.

“Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice,” he said. “But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self.”

Carr cited Maryanne Wolf, a developmental pathologist at Tufts University and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.” Wolf said that the Internet promotes efficiency and immediacy before anything else.

The ability to interpret text, Wolf said, has become largely disconnected with the popularity of reading information over the Internet. She believes the users have become “mere decoders of information,” rather than comprehensive readers.

Socrates once believed that writing would lead to “forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” It appears that these concerns about writing have lately extended to the Internet and, more specifically, Google.


Celebrating the convenience

Elon University students remain positive about the effects and usage of Google. For the most part, students believe Google’s convenience allows them to research a wide range of topics at the blink of an eye.

“Since we have the answers to all of our questions at our fingertips, it makes us far more likely to actually look up whatever questions we may have rather than remain ignorant,” junior Anne Chichester said.

Chichester went on to say that she uses Google for anything and everything. If a question suddenly comes to mind, she said, Google is the first place she goes for the answer. Even though Google sometimes requires its users to decipher the results that show up, Chichester added, it is much easier to use Google than to use another reference.

Students, like junior Carly Price, praise Google for its promptness in returning results. With a culture that is based on efficiency and speed, Price said, it makes sense to use Google to look up a quick fact.

“Why would you search through books looking for the names of all of Saturn’s moons when you could find the answer in a split second using Google?” she said.

Because of Google’s ability to promptly return millions of results from a single keyword, few students criticize the site. However, this immediacy has the potential to create laziness when it comes to students actually pursuing the knowledge by themselves.

Sophomore Michael Ide explains that Google offers an array of services to meet its users every need. Therefore, users do not have to work as diligently to obtain their answers.

“They [Google] have such good features that we, as people, don’t really need to use our brains,” he said.

While Google allows students to access a wealth of information, many times it is necessary for students to decipher the results in terms of credibility. Junior Katrina O’Hara refuses to use Google because she believes it is not the most reliable source.

“We type the most general statements into a search box and read anything and everything that comes up,” she said. “Anyone can write something online and make up a citation or fancy title that would qualify them to report any information/data. We need to be selective about the things we read and believe, and Google throws so much in front of us [that] it is becoming increasingly harder to decipher.”

Examining the statistics


A recent survey of 54 students showed that all use at least one Google application. Google currently promotes 44 applications, from Web Search and Toolbar to YouTube and Picasa.

The survey encompassed undergraduate communications students, with educational interests leaning toward digital media and technology. They were asked to rank their agreement toward Carr’s argument, as well as describe their usage of Google.

According to the survey, the top five applications used by students are Images, YouTube, Maps, Web Search, and Earth. Sophomore Meghan Sherrill believes these features are popular for their level of engagement and access to knowledge.

“It [Google] makes everything so accessible, but if anything, it makes us smarter because we are more on top of things and more aware,” she said. “Since it is easier, people are becoming more engaged.”

Engaged learning, which is heavily promoted by Elon faculty and staff, has become a large part of students’ lives. Seventy-seven percent of survey participants said they prefer engaged learning in the classroom. Based on the results of the survey, these students choose to be engaged outside the classroom as well.

The idea that Google is lowering educational standards may not be fully accurate. Carr perceives Google’s applications as a quick solution, rather than an in-depth quest for knowledge. However, this survey showed that Google’s applications are used mostly for engagement, rather than brain-altering knowledge.

Only 5.6 percent of respondents said they used the Finance feature on Google. Seven percent said they used the Translate application.

These tools—calculating monetary equations and translating languages—require deep intellectual understanding. Considering so few students utilize these features, it may be that Google does not have the negative impact that Carr has suggested. Perhaps students do understand these concepts and are capable of solving these kinds of problems on their own.

Understanding the expert opinions

Peter Felton, Elon’s director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, has followed the reactivity to Carr’s article. Both Felten and his colleague, Dr. Katie King, have used these expert opinions to explore their own interpretations on the subject.

While Felten found Carr’s article intriguing, he does not completely agree with the argument. According to Felten, Google’s popularity is solely because of its ease of access.

“My thing with the article is that I don’t believe that people’s brains are being rewired,” he said. “I don’t think that brain structures are going to change that quickly. I think what’s happening is that we’re redefining what it means to be smart or stupid. Knowledge used to be this thing that was rare. One of the things of being smart was that you had a ton of knowledge, or you had access to a ton of knowledge, in a place with a huge library. Almost everybody who has access to the Internet has access to all this knowledge.”

Felten used a series of metaphors to describe this phenomena. He noted how his four-year-old son searched for his name in Google and felt dismay as his image did not appear. Already at his young age, Felten said, he knows that if he wants to find something, he must search for it on Google.

“When I was in graduate school, if I wanted to find anything, I had to physically go and find it in the library,” he said. “I had to go through piles and piles of books. The nature of access has changed so much.”

Felten went on to say that associating access with intellect is not the correct approach. Being in a library, he said, does not make someone smart. According to Felten, being smart means asking questions, evaluating a document’s sources and reading. These steps still allow people to think critically.

“The key with Google is that it doesn’t help you make meaning,” he said. “It helps you access. It doesn’t make you smarter because it doesn’t help you make meaning. What we need to be doing is helping students learn how to understand meaning out of all this stuff, rather than just convey all this stuff. Access used to be a big part of being smart, but access alone does not make you smart.”

expert3King, who is also a psychology professor, tries to see the issue from Carr’s point of view. She believes his article was simply a suggestion.

“The fact that he phrased his title as a question meant that it was a genuine question for him,” she said. “He’s not really saying it is or it isn’t.”

King agrees with Felten’s argument that Google is simply a tool that creates access to knowledge.

“Google has brought information that used to only be accessible to an elite group of people to a wider range or people,” she said. “I think there’s a number of ways that this has made a lot of people smarter. One is in the medical field—people who are patients. My mother has been undergoing a number of treatments, and my dad has been Googling information. He’s much better informed when he goes to meetings with the doctor than a patient might have been 10 years ago. He can look up some of the treatment options. He can evaluate what kinds of research have been done. Like ‘Is this an experimental protocol, or has this been well-received across different medical standards?’”

King also noted that people have become more informed on real estate. It used to be that people were dependent on their realtors for information, but now they can look on Google for the information they seek.

“It’s not that it’s making the highly educated segment of society smarter, but maybe it’s making the less educated segment of society smarter instead,” she said.

Although King has a brief background in neurology, she said she does not agree with Carr’s argument about Google rewiring the brain.

“Rewiring implies you are making some kind of change, and I don’t see that,” she said. “Reading is too human of an activity to have any kind of evolutionary activity. Language is older. We can adapt language, acquire language. Reading is not the same. Reading is a newer technology. Humans haven’t had a chance to find different ways of reading.”

Overall, King believes that Carr’s article was meant to provoke questions rather than make any claims.

Accessing life from a computer

The next time Jonathan Citty misses an episode of Mythbusters, he will go to YouTube and watch the show online. If Citty wants to verify a fact from the show or learn more about the product that was advertised before the episode began, he can use Google to find the information.

While taking a study break, Citty might act like Felten’s four-year-old son and use Google to search for his name. He will find what he was looking for. He will find this article.

When Jonathan Citty's name gets searched on Google, this article is the fifth article to appear.

When Jonathan Citty's name gets searched on Google, this article is the fifth item to appear.



  1. Good discussion. I tell my university math students one goal of the course is teaching how to read: Read a sentence, translate into math, as questions, answer your own questions. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  2. I like the way you added the graphic with the Google search of Citty. Interesting to see the other comment here as well.

    Your body of work and your portfolio are outstanding. While there are imperfections here and there throughout, they are generally minor mechanical issues that a copy editor would catch.

    I am reviewing portfolios – started on Friday and still going… I’m not going to be writing comments on every story you have submitted lately, because the volume of content from the entire class is so high I just don’t have the time.

    Your work ethic is unparalleled. SMILE! You are awesome.

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