Gotta be smarter than the Internet: Commonwealth Club hosts a techie throwdown

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Google's director of research, Peter Norvig post haggle with Nicholas Carr, anti digital distractedness author
Photo by Erik Anderson

All photos by Erik Anderson

This morning, I wrote this blog post about last night's Commonwealth Club double feature on the authors of the book The Facebook Effect and the Atlantic Monthy article “Is Google Making Us Stupid." I Googled the Commonwealth Club, Peter Norvig, and authors David Kirkpatrick and Nicholas Carr. I Googled “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” (which I felt weird about) in which Carr got some of today's genuises to admit that they can no longer sit and read an entire book. Every once in awhile, my inbox tab would inform me that I had a new email waiting for me, and compelled by a small spur of urgency, I'd spend around 15 seconds reading about the upcoming pie bake-off or exhortation from my editor. Or, you know, Facebook would draw me in like that mean popular girl whose requests you can't quite ignore. Oh yay, Allen posted the photos from Harmony Festival! My ex-boyfriend has changed his relationship status to “married”? What an idiot... and so on, until the irony of the fact I was writing about what social networking and search engines are doing to our brains threatened to explode my cerebellum in a glorious rocket blast of irony.

Focus. In the end, it's what all of last night's presenters wanted to discuss. How we're focusing, the merit of what we're focusing on, what this means for a society of focusers. The first half of the evening was dedicated to a discussion between Michael Arrington, founder of the website TechCrunch, and David Kirkpatrick, whose book The Facebook Effect says that the networking website has upended the very process of communication, and may well play a role in unifying this crazy old world of ours.

Which seemed a little wacky to me. The author called CEO Mark Zuckerberg a mind “of the highest caliber,” who is approaching Bill Gates level innovation. He said the CEO had plans from the get for a website whose communication systems would take on levels of ubiquity typically reserved for governmental entities. Frightening, particularly when Arrington raised the point of Facebook's repeated user privacy infractions and Kirkpatrick replied “Mark thinks it's better for you if you share more,” a view that has the 26-year old feigning contriteness at each uproar, then biding his time for it to settle down before enacting yet another round of security breach. 

 

Author of The Facebook Effect David Kirkpatrick talks newsfeed whilst TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington contemplates breaches of privacy

 

Kirkpatrick quit his gig at Fortune magazine and began writing the book when Facebook had a mere 55 million users, peanuts compared to the half billion profiles that stalk its newsfeed today. He sees no end to the expansion, noting that other developing countries have a higher percentage of users, and sees the one potential threat to Facebook's supremacy as governmental pushback. Why this popularity? Something to do with the way it changes the flow of communication. Every other media in history has forced us to make an outgoing effort to speak to someone. On Facebook, you essentially subscribe to a person by becoming their friend, receiving “updates” on them when the site's algorithms have deemed you interested in what they have to say.

If he's to be believed, we should all start paying closer attention to our online personalities. Don't wanna get hacked? Stop friending people you don't know. Don't wanna be embarassed? Stop putting info on there that “you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the newspaper,” Kirkpatrick says.

Because, like it or not, the Internet is how casual acquaintances are learning about us these days – and it's how we are learning about them, and the world around us. 

But to what extent are we really learning anything? That was the subject of the night's second exchange, a rather heated debate between Carr and Norvig, who would appear to be natural enemies in the wild, given that the thesis of Carr's latest book, The Shallows, is that search engines like Google have led to “a constant state of digital distractedness,” as he put it last night. 

Norvig, attired in a dadaist version of a Hawaiian shirt and two charmingly disparate shades of black, tried to embody Carr as a old fogey, reading quotes from epochs past that lamented “kids these days.” Why not attack the clock, the map, he asked – aren't these all examples of the mechanization of our thought process? Isn't “all new technology seen as panacea,” he asked? Isn't it the personal choice of how to use it that dictates the depth of your thought?

“We're redefining knowledge as a society to be all about access, skimming... I think the nature of the 'net allows us to be constant browsers of information,” Carr replied, unwilling to focus on a particular age group as the standard bearers for this type of shallow thought. He explicated a two stage process of knowledge; the exploration phase, and the focus stage, in which you dive deeper into a source identified by your intellectual foraging. Carr thinks the Google effect on the Internet has stranded us in the first, making the second difficult to achieve when there is a constant stream coming into your RSS feed.

The two went back and forth on scriptura latina, frontal cortez overloads, etc. But at the end of the evening, a mention Carr made about McDonald's seemed to strike to the heart of the matter. Mickey D's does have “salads and fruit cups on the menu. But people go more for the Big Macs.”

So, are we going to ban “trans fats” from the Internet? What about those days when you just want a little bit of intellectual junk food, perhaps a YouTube video binge, or a link to link surf session? Will this make us forever confined to learning about our friends based on the “Likes and Interest” section of their Facebook profile? Does that mean we've lost the ability to use the vast information available on the Internet for deep thinking?

At the moment, it seems we're going to have to wait and see what the history books have to say on the matter. Happy surfing, people.

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