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4/26/2013
04:00 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Is Google Bad For Your Brain?

When a tool becomes indispensable, it becomes a crutch. Don't forget how to think on your own.

Google's 10 Best Gags, Pranks And Easter Eggs
Google's 10 Best Gags, Pranks And Easter Eggs
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Google co-founder Sergey Brin acknowledges that technology can bring both positive and negative changes, but he contends that, overall, technology will make the world a better place.

Brin said as much in his 2012 Google founders' letter, noted April 25, 2013, on Google's Google+ feed (and not to be confused with last April's 2012 founders' letter from Larry Page), even as he concludes on a note of caution.

"Still, we need to continue to work hard to ensure that our contributions are decidedly beneficial -- helping people to lead easier, richer and more fulfilling lives," wrote Brin.

Brin's attitude is, I think, the right one. It's difficult to deny that technological advancements have improved the quality of life for many people. Transformational technologies abound: vaccines, antibiotics, medical imaging, anesthesia, air travel, agricultural science, sanitation, computers, communications and other relatively recent advances have truly made life easier and less precarious for huge numbers of people.

[ Are governments decreasing individual freedoms? Read Google Reports Censorship Surge. ]

At the same time, there's something profoundly troubling in the way the Brin makes his case. He observes that when Page and he started Google 15 years ago, they indulged in the luxury of what was then an exotic item: a cellphone, a device that has since transformed people's lives.

"In 1998, meetings had to be prearranged, travel had to be carefully planned, a paper map was in order to get to a new place, and knowledge was contained in your mind," Brin explained. "Today, it takes a minute on a street corner to catch up with a friend, book a holiday, find your way in almost any corner of the world and find out almost anything about almost anything."

Imagine having knowledge in your mind. And if you're drawing a blank, just ask Google to imagine it for you. I doubt that Brin really means to celebrate the mind as temporary cache for data fetched from Google. But it's worth examining the ease with which we can now outsource our capacity to think.

Others have explored this phenomenon. Writer Nicholas Carr wrote an essay about it, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

I don't think there's a yes or no answer to this rather reactionary question, but there's something to it. In an age of ubiquitous network connectivity and mobile devices, search skill can serve as a substitute for knowledge. But it's a poor substitute, like saccharine for sugar.

It's often said you are what you eat. It's no less true that you are what you know. George Santayana famously wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The tl;dr version ought to be "Those who cannot remember are condemned."

Google is most dangerous when we surrender to it. And though the company means well (most of the time, if you're not a competitor), we owe it to our dignity and autonomy to question the future of convenience and fulfillment that Google, or any technology company, paints for us.

Consider the cloud. Google for years has promoted a paradigm where data lives remotely, where it can be accessed at any time by any network-connected device. This is the value proposition of Chrome OS. And it's appropriate for certain scenarios, like traveling in a region where one's computer or phone could be stolen.

But it should not be the only option. A world where there's little or no local data storage on devices is a world of tethered dependence. It has the same disadvantage as a world where cash doesn't exist, where all money is electronic: It's a place of disempowerment and vulnerability, wrapped in a gloss of accommodation.

Google's automated cars have obvious benefits, in terms of safety, traffic management and convenience. At the same time, they suggest a profoundly different world, where travel is tracked, where private property and freedom of movement and action have been surrendered, where access to the hardware is restricted for your protection. You have the right to purchase, but not to modify, experiment or exploit.

And self-driving cars may not even be the best option for solving modern transit problems: We already have automated cars of a sort, in the form of subway trains. From a business perspective, Google may like the idea of selling hardware and services for millions of autonomous cars. But a better way to reduce the number of cars on the road might be to invest in autonomous buses and trains, to invest in public infrastructure.

Or reflect upon Google Glass: Google is selling its networked eyewear for $1,500, and for that developers get restrictions: "[Y]ou may not resell, loan, transfer or give your [Google Glass] to any other person," the company's terms of service state. Early adopters must accept any Google software update, but they cannot modify the device or software themselves. Closed is the new open.

Google clearly has work to do if it truly wishes to help people "lead easier, richer and more fulfilling lives." And so do we all: We must make sure we possess the knowledge and ability to function, online and offline, without Google. Only then, when we're free to abandon it, can we appreciate when Google is improving our lives and when it isn't.

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kalakagatha
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kalakagatha,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/2/2013 | 9:35:11 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
In Caesar's account of his campaigns in Gaul, there is a brief anthropological digression into the culture, and specifically the Druidic religion, of the Celtic tribes. For reasons, I'll get into in a moment, this is really the only literary source we have for the Druids. Among the many things Caesar describes, one thing is particularly relevant relevant to this discussion: the Druids consciously rejected literacy. Why? Because they felt that it ruined the memory. If you can just write stuff down, what incentive do you have to train your mind to retain knowledge and keep it readily accessible? Now as it turns out, this strategy has some downsides, namely once your mind is gone, i.e. you die, everything contained within it is gone as well, hence the fact that we know very very little about the Druids aside from what Caesar, who is hardly an impartial source, and some scattered archaeological evidence tell us. On the other hand, the Druids may well have been on to something, since from all accounts, the bards of the Homeric tradition, who, although from a different culture, were also operating without the benefit of literacy. The result? Homeric bards were able to perform poems nearly 16,000 lines in length, from memory (not all at once of course!). That's a LOT of knowledge to have in one's head, and utterly unthinkable in an age of Google and Wikipedia, in which we've outsourced knowledge to our machines. This isn't necessarily bad -- wikipedia doesn't forget while we do -- but it does suggest that we are losing SOMETHING, perhaps even something very important, in the process.
GAProgrammer
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GAProgrammer,
User Rank: Ninja
5/1/2013 | 6:41:26 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
I think I understand where you are coming from, but those are poor examples. Being good at keywords is hardly a critical thinking skill and the automated car will take little to no thinking skills at all.
However, to your point, forum and article discussions could be a way to practice and hone your critical thinking skills.
Chuck005
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Chuck005,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/1/2013 | 2:49:38 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
I entered "is Google bad for your brain" into Google. It said no. End of discussion.

Kidding, of course. :-) Great article, very thought provoking.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
4/30/2013 | 11:28:34 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
Great commentary by Tom Claburn.
The navies of the world still put their midshipman on sail boats to give them a dose of reality, the power of the wind and sea, as opposed to the power of steel propellers and diesel engines. On some larger scale, we need to keep our youth anchored to the real world and not let them slip into an artificial, digital envelope from which they peer out on the world with fear and loathing. I'm not sure we know how to do this yet. Our love of consumer technology will make the sheltering envelope ubiquitous. It both contains elements of reality and competes with it. That is, it poses a new, alternative reality that may overwhelm some needed elements of the physical world. Understanding human relationships and face to face, human reactions on the street can't be learned on Facebook. Five years from now, will 14-year-olds know how to tell which direction they're facing, or will they need Google Maps? Charlie Babcock, senior writer, InformationWeek
slave2liberty
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slave2liberty,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2013 | 4:52:35 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
Is spinach bad for your health? Sure, if you over indulge. But hey, I'm no genius so I'll just wait for Google to answer this question for me.
Dw@ll
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Dw@ll,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2013 | 3:49:30 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
Great post.. Got me thinking!! Thanks
Cara Latham
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Cara Latham,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/30/2013 | 12:46:07 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
I agree with the questions raised by this author and also by those who left comments, but I think there are ways for technology like Google and automated cars to coexist with critical thinking.

Surely one does need to think carefully about the phrases and keywords he or she needs to enter into Google to get the appropriate results and even more, one needs to weed through results to find valid and reputable sources to obtain knowledge. While simple, it is still an exercise for the brain. One will need to learn how to use the technology of the automated car and will need to constantly keep up with other changing technologies. I think if anything, our brains are learning differently and retaining different types of knowledge than that of the past.
elcaab
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elcaab,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/29/2013 | 6:33:23 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
Pay phones are of even less use, since most of the ones in public places have been taken out of service.
pmug
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pmug,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/29/2013 | 6:11:21 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
The only number I know is my cell number and 911. I have to look in my phone for all friends and family, my home phone, and fax numbers. If my phone dies I have to wait till I have access to an online source to check my gmail contacts, to retrieve this data.
David Goessling
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David Goessling,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/29/2013 | 6:10:03 PM
re: Is Google Bad For Your Brain?
You can't Google playing the guitar. I can look up how to hold the pick, or what a scale is or how to play a D6/9 chord, but that doesn't help me in the moment in "meat space". Actions like this will always take practice and a different kind of intelligence, knowledge and learning.
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