Essay 2: Taking a Position / 1,000-1,500 Words / 250 Points (25% of Total Grade)
Due Date for Rough Draft (100 points): Friday, 22 May
Taking a position is one of the basic components of virtually every argument. For this essay, you are required to take your own position on the issue that Nicholas Carr explores in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: the impacts of new digital technology on human intelligence, concentration, and memory. Your essay should develop a clear perspective on this issue, and you should include a description of whether or not you agree with Carr’s perspective, and why or why not.
Your essays need to cite Carr’s argument in depth to provide support, detail, and context to your own position.
Students are expected to format their papers in MLA style: 12-pt. Times New Roman, 1-inch margins, uniform double-spacing, and page numbers in the upper-left-hand corner of each page. Include the following information in the class header on the first page: student name, class number and section, instructor name, due date, and word count.
Students are required to cite their sources in MLA style: in-text citations and a works cited page are required elements of both drafts of this essay!
Content (Strength of ideas, claims, evidence, argumentation, etc.) = 50%
Clarity (Focus and specificity of argument and its composition) = 35%
Mechanics (MLA formatting and documentation, grammar and punctuation) = 15%
WH AT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAI NS
By Nicholas Carr
Illustration by Guy Billout
“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with
the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by
the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its
artificial “ brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
I can feel it, too. 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. I can
feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy.
My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours
strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often
starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to
do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to
come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online,
searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been
a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of
libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve
got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be
foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts,
watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes,
to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information
that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to
such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly
applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an
enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan
pointed out in the 1960s, 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.
I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary
types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the
more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have
also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently
confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a]
voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my
reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience,
but because the way I THINK has changed?”
Bruce Friedman, who blogs regularly about the use of computers in medicine, also has described how
the Internet has altered his mental habits. “I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb
a longish article on the web or in print,” he wrote earlier this year. A pathologist who has long been on
the faculty of the University of Michigan Medical School, Friedman elaborated on his comment in a
telephone conversation with me. His thinking, he said, has taken on a “staccato” quality, reflecting the
way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. “I can’t read War and Peace
anymore,” he admitted. “I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four
paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
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. But a recently
published study of online research habits , conducted by scholars from University College London,
suggests that we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think. As part of the
five-year research program, the scholars examined computer logs documenting the behavior of visitors
to two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a U.K. educational
consortium, that provide access to journal articles, e-books, and other sources of written information.
They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one
source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more
than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes
they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it. The
authors of the study report:
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that
new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles,
contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid
reading in the traditional sense.
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell
phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our
medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking
—perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a
developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and
Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted
by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity
for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long
and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere
decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form
when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.
Reading, explains Wolf, is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the
way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the
language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the
craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments
demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that
is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet.
The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential
cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as
well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of
books and other printed works.
Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be
precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and
painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared
that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had
mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers.
Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.
But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a
change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic.
“Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter,
noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen
Living With a Computer (July 1982)
“The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I
simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen…” By James Fallows
“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
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.”
The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the
dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by
the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James
Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George
Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old
connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on
the fly, altering the way it functions.”
As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that
extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of
those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a
compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford
described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an
independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided
time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”
The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it
also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum observed in his
1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of
the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an
impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed
the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise,
we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.
The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use
to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their
brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as
operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor.
Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.
The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in
1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed
only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-
processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful
computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map
and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s
content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the
content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its
arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our
attention and diffuse our concentration.
The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become
attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new
expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers
shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse
info-snippets. When, in March of this year, TheNew York Times decided to devote the second and third
pages of every edition to article abstracts , its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the
“shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less
efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but
to play by the new-media rules.
Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence
over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s
been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains
About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named
Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a
historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the
approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various
metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the
machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing
different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we
might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict
new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s
More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at
last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as
he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the
world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used
time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as
Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to
identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual
substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied
to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only
of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he
declared; “in the future the system must be first.”
Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now,
thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual
lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine
designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information,
and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to
carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church,
and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is
“a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize
everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine
and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business
Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find
information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for
the work of the mind.
The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it
universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as
something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In
Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and
processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we
can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.
Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while
pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn
their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly
to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a
speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a
2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly
attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last
year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and
to do it on a large scale.”
Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast
quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A
fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric
Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is
the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?
Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even
replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a
mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In
Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of
contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just
an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into
the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf
across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other
companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors
of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as
we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to
encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to
Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a
countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates
bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a
substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of
the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they
would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought
very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the
conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have
the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and
reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not
The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing.
The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to
intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that
cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of
scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay
Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.”
But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would
So, yes, you should be skeptical of my skepticism. Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as
Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring
a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and
although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep
reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire
from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In
the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of
contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies,
foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
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. 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.”
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.”
I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s
emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its
childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to
what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the
emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an
almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an
algorithm. 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
This article available online at:
Copyright © 2013 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.
Carr—Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Please answer the following questions regarding rhetoric and style.
1. Analyze the effects of the article’s title. How do you respond to that question?
What expectations does it create about the articles content and tone?
2. The first two paragraphs and juxtapose the mind of a (fictional) computer
with the mind of the author. What does Carr gain by that comparison?
Imagine the article beginning with the second sentence of the second
paragraph: what would be lost?
3. Discuss the purpose of the final sentence of paragraph 3. Define “propel,”
explain how it adds to Carr’s argument, and explain why Carr chose to put
the sentence in parentheses.
4. Analyze the meaning and effectiveness of the comparison at the end of
5. At the beginning of paragraph 7, Carr states, “Anecdotes alone don’t prove
much.” How effective, then, are the anecdotes he uses to begin the essay?
Discuss the pros and cons of his use of his own experience, and evaluate the
corroborating anecdotes he presents and paragraphs 5 and 6.
6. Analyze the relationship between paragraphs 9- 10 and paragraphs 11-13.
Discuss the effectiveness of the abrupt transition between paragraphs 10 and
7. In paragraphs 14 through 16, Carr quotes several sources. Analyze the
effectiveness of Carr’s appeals to authority.
8. Analyze the tone of paragraph 20. What techniques does Carr use to imply
his attitude toward the “Net’s influence”?
9. In paragraph 22 through 24, Carr describes the work of Frederick Winslow
Taylor: what techniques does car used to suggest his position on Taylorism?
10. Carr does not introduce Google until paragraph 25. Why is this an effective
11. Explain why Carr means by calling Google “the Internets high church”
12. Define the relationship between Google’s search engine and “artificial
intelligence” as presented in paragraph 27.
13. Explain what Carr means in paragraph 29 when he states, “In Google’s world,
the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of
contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed.”
Do you agree with this claim? Why, or why not?
14. Analyze the effects of paragraphs 31 through 33 on Carr’s ethos.
15. Examine Carr’s claims about “deep reading” in paragraph 33. Are they
persuasive? What evidence might Carr have used to develop these claims?
16. How does the playwright Richard Foreman’s definition of “pancake people”
(paragraph 34) apply to Carr’s argument about the effects of the Internet?
17. Explain the multiple meanings of “artificial intelligence” in the essay’s final
18. Return to the article’s title. What are the multiple meanings of “Google,” and
how do these meanings affect our perception of the Internet?