Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr wonders. After all, Google tricks us into endless foraging trips to satisfy our information hunger, which it does not. On the contrary, it only makes us more and more eager to look for more information. Before we know it, we are driven by our information urge, an instinct which is taking control of our lives. We divert from whatever we are doing, we skim and devour, but we never take the time to digest. In short: the world is falling apart, thanks to Google.
Carr provokes, delibirately. And his approach works. In Edge 250 other great thinkers of our time elaborate on Carr’s opinion, some agree, but most of them criticise Carr fiercely for his pessimism.
I agree with them because I do not believe internet nihilism is the way to look at the future of the information age. But what strikes me is that I cannot seem to find an answer to the question of what kind of skills we need to deal with this huge amount of information at close range.
Then what is that skill? Playing. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less. We are up for some serious gaming and it appears we are not ready for it. Yet.
Our ability to focus is heavily challenged by the upcoming need to be able to scan at a googlian capacity. But Google itself is not responsible for this evolution.
By introducing more and more media into our daily lives we were made to believe that we would get a better idea of the world as a whole if only we could a) process as much information as possible and b) were able to select the right information at the right time.
But at the same time this constant influx of new information lured us into believing that “the truth (being an affirmation of our own truth) is out there”. That there is something out there that can give us ultimate pleasure and ultimate insight. In other words, we became addicted to scanning by believing we could find our ultimate focal point.
The questions we need to answer today are: how are we going to cope with processing this range of information, how will we be able to select the right information to focus on and what are we supposed to do with valuable information when we find it? At the same time we might ask ourselves what valuable information is and why and how we can recognize information as such?
As many other surfers these days I sometimes get overwhelmed by a sense of being lost while wandering around through the internet. Wherever I am, whatever piece of information I am being fed, every focal point I choose is instantly reduced to triviality by the mere notion that this particular piece of information is just not it. Google might give it a high page ranking but at the same time Google also lists hundreds or thousands of other related links which might prove as valuable or even more valuable than the one I am reading at the time, if only I had the time and the skills to sort it out. It seems that there is nothing I can do about this. Which is basically the underlying premise for internet nihilism.
Yet we do have a choice here. We can approach this notion of immobilizing vastness in a different and more fruitful way. The internet forces us to learn how to play again. In a sense, being a modern day information worker, being a part of the Information Age is all about becoming a homo ludens again.
As children we learn to handle the world through playing. This is not a funny business, we take it very seriously as it can cause tremendous fears as well as intense feelings of joy. Playing enables us to explore and handle a radical amount of seemingly uncatalogued and unindexed information in a fairly good way. Nature as well as the family nucleus provide us with their own structured reality, but most of these rules remain fairly implicit. By playing we force them to become explicit. By playing we discover, internalize and anticipate them. And at the same time we learn a lot about ourselves and our skills.
Playing is different from studying in that it is not about following a set route or path. It is about going somewhere with a certain goal while being willing to wander around and wonder at the same time. As a kid, getting lost in the game is simply another way – or should I say the way – to become smarter and adjusted to life. Give a kid a cube and it will do wonderful things with it. It will play around with it for hours. It might be told or taught to put other cubes on top of it, but by fooling around with the toy the child will also learn about its behaviour in different positions, about its texture and so on. It will learn about shapes, angles and corners, about ballance and maybe about much and much more. It might not complete the task of putting two cubes on top of each other but that does not matter.
These things change dramatically as we become familiar with the notions of sense, purpose and efficiency. Through rationalisation we are taught to believe that we can predict the outcome of our actions and therefore modify our behaviour in such a way that it becomes highly efficient. We turn much more to thinking to avoid pain. Secondary to avoiding pain comes gaining pleasure. And foremost we become obsessively task oriënted. We have a job to do, a goal to obtain. And the only way to complete these tasks is to use your brains. Be smart.
In other words we become addicted to roadmaps and GPSs. Suppose you have to visit a friend who is living quite far away. So you go to Google Maps, enter your coordinates and those of your friend and there you have your route. Great, you think, I will be there in no time. Now somewhere along the route it turns out also that you are no longer on the right track. What do you do? All you have are these printed instructions lying next to you on the passenger’s seat. They won’t tell you where to go. Nobody to call because you left your phone at home. And nobody around as well to ask for directions.
Most of us would get frustrated by this situation. We do want to get to our destination as fast as possible. Everything else is plain wrong. Diversions are unnecessary and cause distress. But since we have no overview anymore and seemingly no directions to get us back on track, we feel lost. Some of us might even become paralysed, simply because driving further does not guarantee you that you are heading in the right direction. For all you know you might be driving away from where you are supposed to go. Others go back on their tracks and try to start all over again. And some just bluntly persist and keep driving along no matter what.
And then there are the players. They try to continue their journey but not by stubbornly following the path they have chosen. If they do so, they do it with enthusiasm and curiosity. They notice what is around them, they notice the experience. For all they know they might discover a new, more interesting route.
Players do not let the sense of being lost overwhelm them. Why is that? Because they do not see their purpose of getting to their friend as an ultimate purpose that should be reached as quickly as possible. Of course, they would like to get there in time. But they are open to whatever comes their way en cours du route. They also avoid criticising themselves all the time as that would blur their focus and keep them from sensing what is happening.
For them a route does not only make sense when it is the shortest route to get from point a to b. Their route makes sense simply because they themselves make sense of it. But before they can make sense of it, they must allow it to make sense in the first place. And this is a fundamental difference between internet nihilism and the approach of the homo ludens. Every route these players take touches them, changes them, it makes them wander and wonder, and they know it.
While surfing the internet you can get overwhelmed by the information you come accross. It might frustrate you, keep you from continuing your journey, but it never ever can keep you from taking it into account and making the most of it.
Does that mean you should divert freely from your initial goal, your initial search? Does that mean that all purposes are in a sense irrelevant? Not necessarily. Players know that everything they meet tells them something about their quest, about themselves, about the initial goal they are trying to reach, about the world they are living in. In short, playing is all about getting there by being there.
While it proves to be a crucial skill these days playing does not outrule the use of a rational approach. As an advertisingprofessional it is crucial to manage and manipulate the balance between these two. You delibirately start playing around looking for a great idea which serves a purpose. Along the way you meet other great ideas which might serve another purpose but which also serve the purpose of making you more creative and getting you closer to yet another great idea. Rationalisation steps in when time tells us it is time to chose, pick a few concepts and work them out. Rationalisation also steps in when we start thinking about how we can realize our ideas, how we can keep the costs down, etc… But we never ever do take these steps into account at the same time.
For brainstorms the order in which you use playing and rationalisation is quite well-known. But for working with the internet no one has actually come up yet with an workable approach which takes into account the notion of playing. Simply because up to now we have failed to recognize the importance of playing in dealing with the amount of information the internet contains and with the way this information is presented to us.
We also should stop downplaying ourselves next to Google or the internet. After all, it is not Google or a particular webpage which will make us write, do, create great things. Sure Google might prove a source of inspiration, but it in the end, it is what we do with this information which makes the difference.
Google should not be treated as an oracle. Nor should we think of it as a map and a guide at the same time. Although we belevied knowledge would set us free from dogmatic beliefs Knowledge inc. aka Google aka the Internet has become our new god to whom a lot of us feel enslaved, simply because we do not and we cannot know all.
In Edge 250 W. Daniel Hillis writes ‘We evolved in a world where our survival depended on an intimate knowledge of our surroundings. This is still true, but our surroundings have grown. We are now trying to comprehend the global village with minds that were designed to handle a patch of savanna and a close circle of of friends. Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth.’
What Hillis writes is right but not in the way he states it. For being able to be broad, we not only need to be capable of scanning and processing information in a new way. Remember the first time you needed to study your course notes at university or at college? First thing you did was to write a summary or get one from your fellow students. While scanning and skimming the web we are looking for the ultimate summary. And that in itself is a paradox.
It reminds me of the “Law of Requisite Variety” by W. Ross Ashby, cited also in Edge 250 by George Dyson who rephrases it as ‘any effective control system has to be as complex as the system it controls. This was the paradox of artificial intellegence: any system simple enough to be understandable will not be complicated enough to behave intelligently; and any system complicated enough to behave intelligently will not be simple enough to understand.’ In short: forget about finding the right summary because every summary gets it wrong in one way or another.
We just cannot get it. And yet we do. Yet we have managed to engage with reality through summarizing, through reasoning, through imagining and through playing. Our ability to unlock the paradox of the ultimate summary, the paradox of understanding reality as a whole by reducing it.
I believe we do have a system innate and so complex we can control reality. But not in a way we are made to believe. Playing is for kids, sportsmen and –women, and artists. Many of us believe it cannot be as complex or rather it cannot be an approach sufficiently complex to gain control over reality in a way science does. This does not make sense. Wrong, it does, in a way we cannot even imagine yet. Not yet. Not until we invent or should I say rediscover an adult 21st century of playing, a way of playing for survival, a way of playing for life.
Update: The Britannica Blog has also opened a forum about this topic. It contains several interesting articles.