In 2008, Nicholas Carr posed the following question: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Among the many reactions to both the question and the article in which it appeared came the ominous prophetic voice of Danny Hillis:
“Nicholas Carr is correct in noticing that something is “Making us Stupid”, but it is not Google. Think of Google as a life preserver, thrown to us in a rising flood. True, we use it to stay on the surface, but it is not for the sake of laziness. It is for survival.
The flood that is drowning us is, of course, the flood of information, a metaphor so trite that we have ceased to question it. If the metaphor was new we might ask, where exactly is this flood coming from? Is it a consequence of advances in communication technology? The power of media companies? Is it generated by our recently developed weakness for information snacks? All of these trends are real, but I believe they are not the cause. They are the symptoms of our predicament.”
“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. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point. We know we are drowning, but we do what we can to stay afloat.”
A year or so ago when I first came into contact with this discussion I was amazed at the estimates and known numbers involved in the creation of information. It is easy to forget the scale of Moore’s Law, and I doubt that the numbers are really comprehensible to us anymore given their sheer size. Here’s a rather new estimate in graphic form based on work done by Martin Hilbert (University of Southern California) and Priscila Lopez (Open University of Catalonia). The study is on our capacity to store information. (I found this through Kevin Kelly’s blog The Technium.)
For information on the amount of information that has already been created, the jury is still out. The University of California, SanDiego has a study dedicated to the question here. In 2000 and 2003, researchers at UC Berkely made valiant efforts at tracking the amount, but the numbers in those studies are nowhere near what we see today. What can be said is that there’s a LOT of stuff out there in both cyberspace and analog data-types. To get oriented, The Economist has an article series from last year that is a good overview of what’s going on.
Of course, a vast majority of the information out there we will never see, but that’s a scary thought when we think about how much stuff we are bombarded with every day. We are adrift indeed, and the water keeps getting deeper.