"yeah, I think people are just getting stuper. stupider." -scottramble

July 12, 2008

So a few weeks ago that Atlantic Is Google Making Us Dumber? article was making the rounds. I finally read it, and wasn't crazy about it. The background was excellent, and talking about how technological changes modifies our way of thinking, like how touchtyping let Nietzsche avoid migraines and start writing more in bon mots, was great. But the final conclusions weren't solid.

There seems to be two main lines of attack: one is that Google is making us soft, that we're going to retain less in our heads since such vast amounts of information -- no, not just vast amounts - terrific methods of getting to the right, small bit of information, with connections to more - are always at hand.

The other line of attack seems to use Google as a convenient shorthand, or possibly whipping boy, for soundbite culture in general. That so many of us our losing our ability to focus for medium or long stretches.

(Disclaimer: I'm increasingly aware that I might not have a "representative" way of thinking, and that too often I'll forget that not everyone approaches problems like I do, and therefore my analysis is suspect as I start to apply it generally.)

Trying to get to the root cause of why having access to lots of information can lead to shorter attention spans is tricky. I think of how I approach long books, on "interestingness density". A really long book better have MANY interesting ideas, or otherwise the return on time and thought invested suffers.

Regular readers of the site will know I've been formulating this idea of "interestingness", sometimes even "interestingness as a moral good", for a while now. Maybe I then owe it to myself to try and peel back the layers of it, find out what makes interestingness interesting, or if there's a way to define or predict what is interesting besides "I know it when I see it"...

Interestingness can be shallow, that's for sure, prefering a great paragraph to a good essay, and the novel and the nifty over the prolonged and fretted-over. But it doesn't have to be; a good technical account can go extremely deep and still maintain a level of novel ideas, or rich and non-intuitive but useful metaphors that make the subject fascinating.

Bringing this back to the main attention span issue... maybe people are using this same kind of lens to judge how long they want to look into something, because something more interesting might be just around the corner. Or maybe we've become more demanding consumers, and getting the gist of something is enough.

Also: I'm more aware of how I tend to speak in parentheses. So often the parenthetical aside is the loveliest part of a multipart thought.

Quote of the Moment
I am nuts for information-- as are we all, I suspect, most real men and women. I can't get enough of the stuff. When I'm clicking through the hundreds of E-mail messages that await me each morning, sometimes I imagine I'm a mighty information whale, sifting through thousands of tiny (but nutritious!) krill bits. Yum! Whether it's reading the cereal box or scanning the advertisment slide show some genius thought to project on the big screen at the movie theater, my appetite for information is unquenchable.
--Joshua Quittner. Actually I first recorded this in 1998...

Google Feature of the Moment
Speaking of Google, Anthony gave me a tour of the NYC office on my way down to VA, when I stopped over to pick up a copy of Wii Fit he graciously had located for me. He pointed out that Google DOES have a feature I was looking for, namely providing date-ordered search results when you're searching a site that has a blog-like format, but you have to click on "Blogs" under "More" to activate it. I think it should be an option whenever you do a "site:"-specific search, and that site in question is known to have a Blog-ish format.

Wii Fit's bad posture, jutted hip model is much sexier than the same model standing w/ good posture. Also the voice is Navi meets GlaDOS.
moving on