The Technium

Will We Let Google Make Us Smarter?

[Translations: Japanese]

Is Google making us stupid? 

That’s the tiltle of provocator Nick Carr’s piece in this month’s Atlantic. Carr is a self-admitted worrywart, who joins a long line of historical worrywarts worrying that new technologies are making us stupid. In fact Carr does such a fine job of rounding up great examples of ancient worrywarts getting it all wrong, it’s hard to take his own worry seriously.

For instance as evidence that new technologies can make us stupid he offers this story about the German writer Nietzsche. Near the end of his life Nietzsche got so blind and old he could not write with a pen but learned to touch type (no sight needed) on a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball typewriter. (BTW, this  device is one of the coolest gizmos I’ve seen. Check out the video here. )



Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

So was his change in style due to switching to a machine or was it because Nietzsche was ill and dying?

Likewise, is the ocean of short writing the web has generated due to our minds are getting dumber and incapable of paying attention to long articles, as Carr worries, or is it because we finally have a new vehicle and market place for loads of short things, whereas in the past it short was unprofitable to produce in such quantity? I doubt the former and suspect the latter is the better explanation.

Carr begins his piece describing how smarter he is while using Google. What if Carr is right? What if we were getting dumber when we are off Google, but we were getting loads smarter while we were on Google?  That doesn’t seem improbable, and in fact seems pretty likely.

Question is, do you get off Google or stay on all the time?

I think that even if the penalty is that you lose 20 points of your natural IQ when you get off Google AI, most of us will choose to keep the 40 IQ points we gain by jacking in all the time.

At least I would.

  • Yaneth Cerrillo

    Google is not making us dumber!

  • dale

    The subject reminds me of a paradox in education policy and funding issues that have been noted in several American cities.

    At more affluent schools/school districts (private/suburban) policy leans toward discouraging computers in the curriculum and classroom, while the less affluent (typically urban)seek, sometimes desperately, necessary funding for computers in the classroom and curriculum.

    The basis for the contrast is in the respective presumptions, both of which may be partially correct: among the former, that computers are ubiqitous in homes and so there is something to be gained in emphasizing traditional cognitive tools and learning aids, while at the later it is understood that school is the only place many children might have the opportunity get with “the big switch” from early on.

    In the previous generation, in the UK and in Ireland for example, recitation remained emphasized in the curriculum long after it had disappeared from the standard U.S. curriculum.
    Recitation, of course, required memorization and hearkened back to the oral heritage. The combination of reading, writing, and recitation made for a very different average outcome, though I can only say so based on my limited personal and anecdotal experience.

    I suspect that the difference could be measured (and maybe it has been) and that the difference is based on the cultural commitment expressed in policy that values the reinforcing role that memorization plays among all three. As only one example, if you do a little writing now and then you are much aware of how powerful it is in stregthening the power of recall. If you do a lot of writing, you begin to take that power for granted. And if you do no writing at all . . .

    In the future, perhaps curricula will evolve wherein “long span” reading and the critical thinking skills that (might) be especially attached to it will be reinforced to the extent that it is valued in a culture or community.

    The peril is that such policy in practice would become the privileged prerogative or domain of an upper class which has co-opted the cognitive class for its purpose. It certainly wouldn’t be an outcome without historical precedent. In this particular worst case scenario, the least advantaged would not be “in on” the big switch nor would they have admission to what will have become gentrified “book reading and thinking” either.

  • Are books making us dumber? I’m certainly smarter when I can refer to the book.

    Perhaps life experience is making us dumber?

    Consciousness maybe?

    I think maybe we’ve become far too reliant on our memories.

  • Divya

    My two bits worth – I love reading books – and size does not matter there. I stay awake reading, sometimes till it is time for me to actually wake up. But ask me to read a long article online, and I would keep postponing it for when I have more time – which almost never happens. Most of the times, it is still not convenient to read something online – the strain on the eyes, the presence of lots of distractions (IM, mail, etc) all contribute to this feeling of inconvenience.

  • We have bigger things to worry. Don’t we?
    These are just tools. They will never make us smarter or dumber. They may affect our productivity though.
    The question is whether you are smart or not. Google cannot do anything about it.

  • Margaret Weigel

    In the last para: “… that you loose 20 points of your natural IQ”. This was a trick, wasn’t it? It’s not ‘loose’ in this context, it’s ‘lose’. I guess Google can’t jack up the IQ in terms of spelling or communication. You have to admit, it’s a charming end to an article about how much smarter Google is allegedly making us. :)

  • Great post(s) around a fascinating debate. You pose an interesting question about trading your natural IQ for an artificial IQ (AQ?). In my opinion, this won’t be a matter of choice so much as an imperative for functioning in modern society, for better or worse. Given such inevitability, labeling the new way of thinking as ‘stupid’ is very short-sighted.

    However, I agree wholeheartedly with your following position in the comments:

    “We are about to make the next big switch. Billions of people on earth will stampede to join. Something will certainly be lost. It would serve us all better if that lost was better defined, and it was paired with a better defined sense of what we gain.”


    My full response (to the whole debate), entitled Fearing Digital Literacy, can be found here.

  • Tom Buckner

    I read the Atlantic article in question last week, more or less the moment it became available. Truth to tell, I skimmed it in rather less than five minutes. That’s how I read now. Online much of the time, skimming for the quick payoff, few books. I have Nick Carr’s disease, so I know what he’s talking about is real. On the other hand, so few books are really worth reading in full, eh? The author has one or two good points to make, the synopsis is, in fact, all you need. That’s how I feel, anyway: there is so much to know that it’s better to spend your reading life getting the synopsis of ten thousand books than to actually read one thousand.

    Didn’t Ben Franklin say there were three ways of knowing a thing: To know it yourself, to know others who know it, or to know how to find those who know it? Google is like a genie tasked to this third method. Like all genies of lore, the quality of Google’s work is directly related to how good you are at asking the right question (success or failure at finding the desired answer is known as “My google-fu is strong” or “My google-fu is weak”).

  • J Johnston

    I believe google has taught me plenty of things, while distracting me from just as many. Google has given me more information at my fingertips and less stored in my “hard drive” of a brain. Its my biological “cloud app.”

  • Kevin,

    A few observations:

    The ancient worrywarts did not “get it all wrong.” They got a lot of it right but also missed a lot. They certainly deserved to be taken seriously (and still do).

    Nietzsche himself noted the changes in his thoughts that resulted from the use of the machine. (That’s no surprise. Of course our intellectual tools affect our thinking – or do you disagree?)

    Actually, I don’t think I talked at all about the prevalence of short writing on the web. You’re probably right about the causes of that. What interests me is how the mode of reading on the hyperlinked web is becoming the default mode for our brains, crowding out other (deeper) modes of reading.

    I didn’t say that I was smarter from using Google. I said I was much more efficient in doing research. As I go on to argue, the efficiency of data collection seems central to Google’s (and seemingly Kevin Kelly’s) idea of intelligence; to me it’s one element in intelligence but by no means the most important.

    I can pretty much guarantee you that use of Google has no impact on IQ scores.


    • Kevin Kelly


      Thanks for responding. I think you’ve succeeded in pointing out a worthy issue that needs to be tackled — if for no other reason than the lack of agreement on what we are talking about. Let’s start with your last comment.

      > I can pretty much guarantee you that use of Google has no impact on IQ scores.

      Here’s the title Atlantic used to headline your piece:

      > Is Google Making us Stupid?

      Stupid = low IQ? Yes, we aren’t talking about IQ, but are you talking about any effects that can be measured? What exactly are you suggesting happens? The clearest effect you mention is a lack of reading deeply (whatever that means). Is there anything measurable beyond that?

      For example, you bring up the issue of whether the changes in Nietzsche’s writing is due to illness or the machine he was using.

      >Nietzsche himself noted the changes in his thoughts that resulted from the use of the machine. (That’s no surprise. Of course our intellectual tools affect our thinking – or do you disagree?)

      Of course I agree tools can affect our thinking. What I don’t assume is that a) we will be self-aware of what those affects are, or b) that we can acertain which tool does what. Nietzsche could have been wrong.

      My problem with your premise is not that it is impossible, but simply that there’s no real data. And that your worry follows a pattern of previous worries that when the data does come in, were shown not to be the worry we thought they were.

      >The ancient worrywarts did not “get it all wrong.” They got a lot of it right but also missed a lot.

      I don’t feel that in your essay you made a very convincing case of “what they got right.” I think if their claim was that some qualities were lost — say ability to memorize things — then we could probably find evidence to support that. We could do that by testing the memory skills of oral cultural citizens vs literates. Where is that data? But that would prove what I think the ancients were claiming. And it would still not prove the literates as dumber, or even lesser. Because other tests might show increase cognitive skills that literates have that illiterates don’t.

      You do admit, there is no real data, but that doesn’t stop you.

      >Anecdotes alone don’t prove much. And we still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition.

      As you point out and I agree, what we call intelligence is not one thing.

      > As I go on to argue, the efficiency of data collection seems central to Google’s (and seemingly Kevin Kelly’s) idea of intelligence; to me it’s one element in intelligence but by no means the most important.

      So the most we might be able to say — if there was data — is that the nature of our intelligence is changing. You start out saying just that:

      >Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.

      If your point was this, then you might be able to prove it — but it is not very interesting because more important would be the question “to what?” Despite the great start to the piece (which I liked and agree with) you end up here:

      >we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin

      I think this is where The Atlantic gets “stupid” from, and it does feel that way. Pancake people!

      What this picture does not include is the corresponding increase in things we get from our new way of thinking.

      This by the way is what the worrywarts forget. Yes, they see and understand what is lost, but they don’t acknowledge what is gained, and they certainly don’t acknowledge that the total sum in the exchange is probably positive – more gained than lost -which is why billions of people have made the switch.

      The biggest switch in history was the change from orality to literacy. Much was lost, but even today people are still stampeding to make the big switch. Are they really being stupid?

      We are about to make the next big switch. Billions of people on earth will stampede to join. Something will certainly be lost. It would serve us all better if that lost was better defined, and it was paired with a better defined sense of what we gain.

      In other words you’ve written only half the story, which is why I think you preface it with “maybe I’m just a worrywart” because I think that is what worrywarts do — only half of the story.

      Paired with the other half — what we gain from the big switch and why we will make the choice — you’d have an incredibly powerful piece.

  • Artie

    Yes, but what happens to all your virtual IQ points when Google/internet browns out or is hacked into oblivion?

  • I’ve been wondering if this is less a matter of intelligence and more a matter of knowledge. They’re not the same thing.

    Google gives me access to information, but doesn’t necessarily improve my ability to assimilate it. Over time, access to more information will improve my ability to reason and process it, certainly, just like any other education, but that’s not something I need to be actively hooked into Google to do.

    So I would question whether Google is making us more or less intelligence rather than just making us more or less educated (or in my case, more pedantic). There are, after all, an incredible number of stupid educated peoplearound.

    • Kevin Kelly


      Yes, I think we need to unpack the terms of education, effectiveness, knowledge and intelligence.

  • Before Google, ther ewas the library.
    That’s where some of us began our quest for intellectual stimulation/accumulation.

    Google has made it more convenient, and more efficient to fine more stuff, but it ain’t the only way….PLease tell me I’m not the only one who makes a regular pilgrimage to my local library?!?

  • Kevin,

    Good post and question. Thanks again. Good to see you are so actively blogging last 12 months !

    My 2 cents:
    – Intelligence is the general flexibility of the mind, to adapt to our environment and its tasks. To discern similarities and differences within a specific knowledge domain. In my view books and long articles are relatively more effective in the above discernment. The depth of case studies in books give a deeper understanding of contextual and process information on top of the content itself. In short web based posts, there seems to be the risk of neglecting or ignoring important contextual and process details. As a result, shallow generalization with a knowledge domain might be the results. In my view in the above sense Google might make us ‘dumber’.

    – There are 8 different forms of intelligence (Howard Gardner), Google seems to effective in the left-brain cognitive forms of intelligence (language, math, etc.) neglecting some other key forms of intelligence.

    – There is a distinction between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Google makes us ‘smarter’ in the sense of data and information. For knowledge (with an experience component in it, see tacit knowledge) and wisdom it doesn’t seem to make a difference in my view, it might even make us ‘dumber’ as there is less time to experience life and reflective time for developing wisdom. It reminds me of the great movie Good Will Hunting in which Robin Williams explains to Matt Damon that wisdom is a result of living life instead of reading books or articles.

    And I do agree with some other comments below. E.g., basic intelligence is still key (nature and nurture).

  • Luke

    I’m now slowly reading through your articles and it has been great reads and insight so far. As to my opinion on whether Google makes us smarter, it is pretty obvious it makes us smarter for things we DO NOT know about.

    For things that Google does not know (new technology, culture etc.) we actually educate Google. In fact, we are the teachers of Google, in the process enabling Google (or even Wiki in a certain sense) to be a teacher of others seeking similar knowledge.

    I for one gains a lot of knowledge from Google and Net-related stuff, but for Google to be smarter, it gets from the Human Mind, and back to the Human Mind. It’s 2 way, really.

  • Consider that the general population in America has greater access to information then ever before. And it’s multi-dimensional.

    Free and cheap. As accessible as water.

    I taught myself software engineering over the Net in the 90s and built a career – and I have a GED and was fighting from a childhood of poverty and homelessness at the time.

    Consider that in general – the American population is no greater informed about the world about them, or even their own country. Countless survey after survey bares this out. In general – we are deaf, dumb and blind to the world around us – and increasingly – our own towns.

    This with blog after blog, community after community, social network after social network, available to us to provide us access to news and information.

    This goes far beyond Google.

    Tom Buckner above bares out my experience for the most part – for the entire Net.

    While I think it a bit unfortunate that Nick Carr’s article took the tone it did – we need a more grounded take on social software and how it both empowers us and can draw us towards ends that are not so optimal for ourselves or our communities.

    And while you both agree about that discussion, a similar discussion took forth after the publishing of David Shenk’s “Data Smog”. That book has borne itself out as prophetic. The solutions it subscribed at the end – not so much.

    So here we are.

    Will writers such as you both decide to de-hype your writing “Google is making us dumber” – “No Google is making us Smarter” – “I can feel my brain size increasing!!!!!” to help those that follow or will you both be examples of our time – and write sensationalist headlines to gather eyeballs and page impressions?

    No fun in that is there?

  • Will We Let Google MakeS Us Smarter?

    Love the irony of the title… ;-)

  • Terrell

    i truly believe that Google is one of our single most important inventions of the century. In the past, if you wanted to know anything about anything, you would need to pack up and go to the local library (that’s if you are close enough to a public library). Instead, with Google, you are able to research and learn (in detail or very quickly) absolutely anything you can think of, you are able to research, thus making you much smarter, well rounded and enlightened.

    I often tell individuals who have problems learning or want to open many more doors – in terms of education, “just Google it”.

    I’ve personally made it a point to show anyone willing to listen how important and efficient the Google tool is.

    Lastly, as technology advances and we all become accustom to new and improved things, i truly believe that the Google system will be looked at as one of the single most important invention of lifetime; no more are we at a disadvantage to persons that are faithful library go – getters, nor are we susceptible to NOT knowing interesting facts or important educational items and topics.


    – Terrell, Los Angeles