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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Google, thinking, writing « Previous | |Next »
June 16, 2008

Andrew Sullivan in this post for the Sunday Times explores the impact Google is having on the way way we think and write. He asks the following questions about the white noise of the ever-faster information highway:

Are we fast losing the capacity to think deeply, calmly and seriously? Have we all succumbed to internet attention-deficit disorder? Or, to put it more directly: if you’re looking at a monitor right now, are you still reading this, or are you about to click on another link?

I'm still capable of reading a column in a newspaper and keeping an eye on the argument. I don't read many books these days though. Is that due to Google or to lack of time? My immediate response would be the latter. Sullivan, however, argues differently. He describes the changes Google has had on the way he works:
In researching a topic, or just browsing through the blogosphere, the mind leaps and jumps and vaults from one source to another. The mental multitasking – a factoid here, a YouTube there, a link over there, an e-mail, an instant message, a new PDF – is both mind-boggling when you look at it from a distance and yet perfectly natural when you’re in mid-blog.

That's a good description of the new mode of working as a blogger. Sullivan's thesis is says that what we may be losing is quietness and depth in our literary and intellectual and spiritual lives, and in arguing thus---Google gives us pondskater minds-- Sullivan is working off Nicholas Carr.

I accept Nicholas Carr's argument in The Atlantic that technology changes the way we think and write:

media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. 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.

Working on the internet is more a different kind of reading and writing; one that still works with interpreting texts, as opposed to reading as decoding information. For instance, you cannot write about the global economy and economics without interpreting ambiguous texts, even if some see the search engine Google as a form of artificial intelligence.

One account of a different way of working.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:26 AM | | Comments (31)


Quietness maybe, but not depth. Reading, thinking and writing in hyperlinks is far more complex than than the old linear model.

I don't see this as all that drastic, as Andrew (via Carr) points out each tech age will shift "thinking" in some way.
As with the modern mantra of life-long learning this is another layer.
the main problem I see with the Google generation is the concept of authenticity for online materials. Sure the upcoming generations know their way around Wikipedia and such but how do they work out what to use for scholarly or perhaps even media work?
As an information professional (post-google)/librarian(pre-google) who's place is apparently underthreat of extinction by search engines, I don't see that access to more information is a problem as there will always be the question of quality over quantity.

As to losing the "quietness and depth" as a parent of two toddlers, I find that they are more of an obstacle to these concepts than Google is.

Carr, in his article Is Google Making us Stupid, seems to be driven by an old fear in a literary culture---namely:

In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

The internet is not just google or a search engine. The search engine may be understood as a form of artificial intelligence by Google engineers, but that does not mean that we become machinelike from using it.

The internet generates a range of insider/outsider cultures that are not well understood. There's the outsiders who don't use it, outsiders who only email, insider/outsiders who email and Google but don't use social networking, and the insider cultures of all the groups who you could roughly say spend time 'in' various spaces of the internet. For those of us who spend time 'in' here with others it seems ridiculous to say that the people 'in here' are machine like.

I agree with Lyn.
Artificial intelligence? Internet technology is a tool, some will use it as a crutch, some as a purely social- interactive device.
i think that relying on computers for mediation of understanding is a step above the cathode ray for the same job. The internet involves some form of interaction and a new form of literacy.

the machine crowd are very powerful in modernity. They do understand nature, the economy and society as a machine. So it is little wonder that they see the internet as a form of artificcal intelligence.

I do not think that the response by a conservative literary culture to this is plausible. This response is that if we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.
Carr then says that in a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:

I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”

Carr adds that as we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

Are we being drained of our cultural inheritance by the internet?A lot of that cultural inheritance is increasingly on the net --eg Nietzsche--- so that people can access it

if the internet is a new form of literacy then it cannot be just a tool. It is a technology that changes the way we write.

---and possibly the way we think. It is not possible to think in terms of deductive logic starting from fundamental axioms in this space of flows.It's more a montage style of thinking isn't it.

The literature on this stuff points out that prior to the alphabet and printing press, we developed all sorts of elaborate rituals for sharing knowledge. Communication was rhythmic as in songs and poetry.

Come the printing press and industrialisation and we become more linear and accumulate knowledge in encyclopaediae. The self discipline of industrialised life dictates that learning and thinking take vast amounts of time and can only be done by specialists with the leisure time to do it.

That's no longer the case as internet thinking looks more like a three dimensional network available to all, and the disciplined specialist is useless unless they participate. We think with links.

As with past changes (remember the Luddites?) some refuse and some get left behind.

Sorry meant to say, requires a new form of literacy.

what kind of literacy? Any ideas? Any links?

Nan, try this

Not literacy, not digital literacy, but information literacy - the ability to tell good info from bad.


Information Literacy, or possibly Information and Media Literacy. This relates to the being involved in a digital society being able to access, manage, and communicate in a variety of forms. This blog is probably a basic example of the a new form of literate communication. The instantaneous (if not moderated) back and forth of ideas that was unavailable in previous forms.
I guess a question for gary would be how has his blogging influenced his thinking?
I think an interesting point is that links can allow one become actively involved with a text with the ability to instantly drill into commentary and other contextual texts. There is also the element of non-linear learning that is the most pronounced difference in engagement with a digital/online environment.

i think this point harks back to Garys question about "montage" thinking, perhaps non-linear is a better term.

When looking at writing there is a definite brevity when writing for users online.

The UNESCO paper says that:

The essential point is that transforming information into knowledge requires information literacy skills....information without transformation is only raw data. The use of information requires a mastery of cognitive skills, including critical thinking, and this in turn depends upon the capacity to locate, evaluate and then use information.

That doesn't sound any different to the way I used libraries and read books. We still have the same old divide as it costs a lot of resources---computers and broadband connection---to be a part of the digital world. It also requires creative skills to produce in that world--photos, weblogs, videos, podcasts.

I've been trained in philosophy so I think in terms of taking a position in an ongoing debate/conversation in opposition to other positions and then to continue that debate in a public culture by way of argument.

This is not the way that the rhetoric of journalism works as journalists are shifting to infotainment, or a tabloid media culture which works on, or appeals to, raw, blind emotion.

MY old style approach to, or understanding of, public reason hasn't changed as the policy world works in these terms, even if journalism does not. So I try to do this on the weblogs with varying degrees of success.

The way my old style has changed is to incorporate more imagery as we increasingly live in a visual culture and images appeal to emotions more than deductive logic.

Nicholas Negroponte believes that the digitial world involves a total redefinition of everyday life:

Mass media will be redefined by systems for transmitting and receiving personalized information and entertainment. Schools will change to become more like museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with other children all over the world. The digital planet will look and feel like the head of a pin. As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role.

The virtual world replaces the physical world. Hmmm. Over the top exuberance about a friction-free marketplace by Dr. Pangloss?

It is true that the older embedded identities of living as territorial beings at physical sites will be tested by the newer user identities from networked nodes because online life will bring a cosmopolitanism to isolated localities that otherwise would be missing in regional Australia. We are experiencing the waning stability of uniform national identities defined by place---- to be replaced by what?

In a library the information you have available to you, say on health which is the example the report uses, has been screened and sifted and deemed worthwhile.

In a library you have only you and your ability to select from the available choices. Online your resources include the knowledge and resources of others as well, which the UNESCO report doesn't acknowledge. Literacy is a collaborative activity online.


yes your use of images is very effective I believe (one of the reasons I've been a long time reader) and this is where you are using a combination of media to put across a point or begin a conversation. As you say there are text-people and image-people, while we are primarily visual beings, before the rapid advancement of media tools and resources, text (or possibly graphs) was the image.
Does this change the way we think? Yes, obviously.
This might be off track but I remember a piece written by Umberto Eco where he was pondering how clothing can change one's thought processes. He talked about losing alot of weight, so much so that he could finally fit into a pair of jeans again. Although he found that when he wore them, he was aware that he was wearing them and thought that this awareness was diverting/constraining his thinking in a small way. He then commented on clothing in a historical context i.e monks - loose simple robes, medieval - armour, Victorian - corsets, tight clothing etc and how this may reflect the literature of the times.
So if something like what we wear can affect the way we think, the tools we use to gather and disseminate information have an effect on the construction of knowledge for an individual.
As Nan, points out, its not that much different than looking at many books/articles/documentaries at once (if that was possible), which is why I was saying at the beginning that I don't see the effect being that great.
However the problem is authenticity, there is an added element to critical thinking about online information - where did this information come from? Is it current? Is it scholarly? Is it opinion? Is it commercial?
In traditional formats this was easy, esp if it is a published academic title etc. The digital environment, its non-linear structure, the use of search engines to navigate the environment means that traditional signs of authenticity can be absent or hidden.
In the future, one possible answer to this problem is what some have styled Web 3.0 or the Semantic Web, where the metadata used to describe information stems from a common framework.
Frameworks exist at the moment but the older metadata schemes for describing information objects - MARC format, Library of Congress Subject headings etc were developed pre-digital and struggle to accurately describe new digitally born objects.
Essentially, more accurate & common metadata means greater accuracy when searching.

Apologies if I've gone on abit.

Where Gary's use of both the image and text meet is in the territory of narrative, the same space where rythmic beats and lyrics meet. It's a very complex space but we seem to be programmed to read it easily.

Where you talk about authoritative sources the Library of Congress stuck out for me. Authority is no longer associated with truth (WMD, children overboard, I did not have whatever with that woman, potatoes are bad for you, AGW does/doesn't exist, 911 conspiracies and so on). I think that cumulative knowledges from both authoritative and amateur sources, including opinion and commercial content, meeting in the semantic web construct is where we're going. Some opinion and commercial content is worthwhile and in the online environment, popular opinion (or popularity) is paramount. This causes problems for the trustworthy or the authoritative.

Academic publishing is a case in point. The vast majority is still stockpiled behind expensive paywalls and that's not about to change anytime soon. Factual information will be harvested and winnowed from what is openly accessible.

You say "more accurate & common metadata means greater accuracy when searching", which is true, but more accurate and common than what? In an ideal world the paywalls will eventually come down, but in the meantime I'd argue that people still need to know how to discriminate.

Maybe we're in the period of Web 2.5, part of the way to widely accessible, reliable information assembled collectively from all possible resources?

"Authenticity'---- hmm.

I appreciate that librarians and teachers, as part of their job, need to help students in uni learn to assess information on the internet --authenticity?-- but honestly I personally don't have a problem here.

I still do the evaluation in terms of what are the person is arguing.---Its an old conception of public reason, but classical rhetoric's appeal to the emotions and the common places of everyday life to get a toehold (eg., Nelson on petrol) in the public's awareness (cutting through) was based on the backbone of a convincing argument.

The trouble with Nelson is that he doesn't have persuasive argument re petrol in the context of climate change. So he doesn't convince even if he is able to get out attention.

Isn't making an argument what we classically mean by critical reason?

context is important for both the image and text meeting in the territory of narrative.

Narrative or story telling works in terms of an image or big picture (Paul Keating or Howard, but not Nelson or Swan) re leadership political life. In politics--eg., Rudd persuading the Australian public to embrace an emissions trading scheme even though it hurts to do so --- the big idea or vision can be very simple (eg., Menzies' 'forgotten people').

In the public policy culture it is mostly an argument and evidence within the frame of the big picture which is accepted as given. (The AMA lacks evidence so they look silly).

A visual narrative as in photography in an art gallery is difficult for many to read as they rely on words to help them interpret the images. They find it hard to interpret a series of images on their own without words.

Gary, This is probably complicating things more than necessary, but I find your use of "public policy culture" an interesting thing to think about. We don't usually think of the three as being related, but in this moment of change it makes sense to think of them that way.

I'd argue a (admittedly slight) difference from your AMA lacks evidence thing, and say they don't fit with the now dominant working families narrative. Since when did evidence matter when children are overboard and Henson is a pornographer? Instead I'd say the AMA is on a losing streak because they're expecting their interests to be valued above and beyond those of the largely fictitious but nevertheless appealing working families.

In the case of working families, that particular discourse provides the background for any narrative we care to name, from alcopops to global warming. So the big picture, at the moment, is working families and their futures (public cultures) and any discourse or narrative (public policy) has to fit with that.

This is, of course, skating away from Dean's authenticity, text, image argument which is vital as it describes content, but on the point of context the here and how is about working families. Their ability to access information about fuel prices and anything else they want to know, including whether their dogs need jumpers in winter or whether their kids are using the internet to access porn.

I'd call that rhetoric around 'working families' part of the politics.

The public policy culture is me writng a 20 page submission to the Productivty Commission, or to the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. Or the background papers for CoAG. written by the working parties. Or the committe work in the Senate.

The AMA is engaging in politics because it has lost the public policy argument on primary care.

"They find it hard to interpret a series of images on their own without words."

What do you mean by 'hard'? Do you mean that people get "it" wrong?
My experience is that you can show people unrelated images next to each other and they will try and construct some sort of narrative for them anyway. We try and find the story, the connection, I don't think that is hard at all. Whether they divine the artists purpose or theme? That can be hard.

"Where you talk about authoritative sources the Library of Congress stuck out for me."
The LOC has been a significant institution driving the classification of information objects, it doesn't have anything to do with truth. When i talk about authority I guess I coming from an scholarly perspective (where I work). Part of the critical thinking in information literacy is knowing where your information has come from, and any possible context related to that.

"I think that cumulative knowledges from both authoritative and amateur sources, including opinion and commercial content, meeting in the semantic web construct is where we're going."

Exactly. But there is a need to distinguish between them, and for that to be easy to identify. Also i question your use of the term knowledge here.
For me, knowledge only resides in a persons mind, outside that space its all information (or possibly data).

I have a question: How do you see the concept of the 'public sphere' fit into all these matters?
How does it interact with gary's "public policy culture"?

the scholarly emphasis on "authoritive sources" does sit uncomfortably with the public policy culture eemphasis on evaluating different policy options. It seems quaint and old fashioned ---what constitutes an authoritative source in health--the AMA? Or in energy? The power industry?

The scholarly stuff is quaint because the appeal is to authority--not reason-- it pretends to be above politics and economic/political interest. The policy culture openly acknowledges political interest and tries to find a way of continuing the debate (eg., on water) in a public sphere ruled by political or corporate interest as much as public reason.

how can you get the meanings of a series of images or photographs 'wrong'?

As viewers we interpret these images, and my interpretation may, and probably will be, different from Lyn's or my mothers. The fuss over Bill Henson's series of images showed that, and highlighted how we approach an image from a particular perspective.

'Hard' means difficult in this context. I need words to help me---provide guidance-- as I have grown up, and educated in, a literary or print culture. Creating a narrative from my own responses to 6 images (say Henson's nude teen bodies, architecture and landscapes) is difficult for me to do. I struggle to make sense of it and to articulate the visual narrative.

You cannot say that it is all about sex.

Thinking about critical thinking, sources and context, old theory supposes an individual assessing information in isolation. In the online environment critical thinking looks more like a group process. We need to rethink these things.

public sphere:

I think that what we actually have is so far removed from the Habermasian ideal that any honest assessment would have to conclude that 'the public sphere' is pretty much a cultural artefact - we know what we mean by the term but does such a thing actually exist?

The public culture is a less concise notion but I think it's a better fit with what we actually have. Anything at all that has public presence gets counted, including the assumptions we don't articulate in public debate (assuming that 'public debate' means more than a select handful thrashing it out in the media).

My biggest problem with the public sphere is the salience of rationality. You can give people all the data you want, it won't make debate rational.

I misunderstood Gary's public policy culture, which I took to sit somewhere in between politics and public culture I guess. Still, it's an interesting concept to play with should government ever get around to more direct public involvement with policy formation.

the policy culture is closed and expert based. It is for bureaucrats, staffers and think tanks. The public don't get a look in. 2020 Australia opened the window for a weekend.

dump Habermas. He's misleading and too high modernist. You need to think in terms of rhetoric to get a handle on the public conversation in the public culture. hetoric fallible opinions, popular perceptions, transient beliefs, chosen evidence or evidence at hand (like statistics), which are all properly called commonplaces as they help establish a commonality of understanding between the orator or rhetor and his/her audience

Gary, You're preaching to the converted. If I recall correctly we agreed quite some time ago that the Habermasian public sphere is a joke and the public culture, which takes in everything you've mentioned and more, is a more realistic way of getting our heads around what's actually happening.

Against Habermas: More than 70% of Australians are pro-choice. More than 80% reject our support of American foreign policy in the Middle East (at least). Other majorities include support for voluntary euthanasia, formal recognition of same-sex marriage or an equivalent and the fast track development of renewable energy sources. These are not reflected in policy and are not likely to be for quite some time.

Not to mention political spin and widespread distrust of media.

The Habermasian public sphere is a romanticised remnant of something which was probably only an ideal to start with, which only ever happened in the fevered minds of half a dozen regulars in 17th or 18th century coffee shops.

Real life is way more complicated. Rhetoric is part of it, and subject to change without notice. The thing that fascinates me about polls (stats) is their ability to give us some evidence of who we are and what we believe or value in all the noise. In a public culture of multiplying and voluminous bullshit they give us, the masses, some kind of anchor. Or as you would have it, they give us some sense of stability in a world of chaotic flux. At least we know something of ourselves as a people, rather than a nation or an electorate.

"Thinking about critical thinking, sources and context, old theory supposes an individual assessing information in isolation. In the online environment critical thinking looks more like a group process. We need to rethink these things.

A group process? Perhaps the technology just allows assessing and communication (in isolation) a lot faster that previously able. The isolated individual would still be accessing information , perhaps in traditional form - print, yet does the electronic delivery of information, the ability to test hypothesis/argument in a blog/forum, received feedback from worldwide. All these things would have happened in the traditional critical thinking individual if opportunity arose i.e conferences, faculty/business meetings, snail mail, teleconferences.

Lyn, perhaps this means a change in thinking about discourse and how this influences the construction of knowledge.

"perhaps this means a change in thinking about discourse and how this influences the construction of knowledge."


When I said the 'isolated individual' I was thinking along the lines of the mass media/mass audience stuff and how we're moving away from that. I'm interested in popular discourses and the ways they construct knowledge. Global warming for example, where a popular knowledge has become attached to scientific knowledge following a democratic logic (if a majority of scientists agree then it must be true). In that realm a null hypothesis is as useful as a back pocket in a singlet.

We're not a network society just yet, but it would be silly to think we're not on the way there. At the moment, the way I see it, the ranks of those who had the opportunity to participate in group processes like conferences in the past make up a pretty substantial proportion of those 'in here' on the net doing their critical thinking as collectives. But they're being joined by more and more of the masses every day which is when change happens on a significant scale.

Thinking about the election last year, the people 'in here' had better and more reliable knowledge than those 'out there' partly because their resources included plenty of other discourses they would not otherwise have been able to access. In here, the construction of knowledge is kind of like the construction of a beehive, the result of something like collective altruism.

Certainly it's a lot faster, as you say, and technically speaking we are still (physically) isolated individuals accessing selectively and making up our own minds, but in here I, and anyone else reading, have access to an unknown person using the name Dean suggesting we might need to rethink the relationship between discourse and knowledge construction.

Whether we solve this problem or not, we are discussing it openly in a public space, which changes the distribution of access. Or the possibility of access, anyway. Somewhere in there is a dynamic between discourse, knowledge construction, access and participation.