The Information Age: Not Just Google

07/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Google is not only is a verb, it's also -- officially -- an "evergreen" issue for media columnists, magazines and Internet publications. How can we talk generally about the state of the Internet without asserting anything new? Google. How is the Internet taking over our lives for the better? Google. For the worse? Google. Much like "green"/"carbon footprint" articles and "Best of" lists, you can always turn to the world's biggest math equation for inspiration/deadline-saving content.

Hey, I've written about Google as well in my star-eyed beginnings as a "media" "critic." It's an understandable impulse: In order to take some stock of the Internet -- of the 0s and 1s that are destroying print media and fostering impossible communities and basically re-teaching us how to both waste our time and expand our minds -- you can usually look at Google as a catchall for whatever argument you're trying to push.

Maybe we can forgive the plebian bloggers/columnists for sticking their thumbs in the Google pie. Poke the giant; he ain't gonna notice you, anyway. The downside is that you're replacing original argument with something nearly anyone with an Internet connection can understand: Google is huge; Google is everywhere; its ubiquity is unchallengeable.

The current issue of The Atlantic falls victim to letting the easy Google narrative supersede a nuanced and well-thought article. Its cover story, by The New York Times' media columnist Nicholas Carr, is titled "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?"

The immediate trope is this: Google is the world's biggest search engine; with it, we can find any piece of information instantly; this means we're losing the ability to think for ourselves. We've heard this before -- over and over.

Carr's essay isn't really about Google. It argues that computers and the Internet -- frustratingly, Carr uses the two terms interchangeably -- are in the process of reworking human cognition. Hyperlinks, blogs, insta-access and insta-distraction are driving our brains away from long-winded prose and toward the short and punchy. Google is obviously a big part of this process -- but it's not the be all and end all of the argument. Carr's argument immediately brushes up against the (gasp) "so what?" of the Information Age:

"We still await the long-term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition."

Kids are drawn into the Web as soon as they can move a mouse. Childhood is the ideal time to learn a second language because at that age our brains are still developing speech, writing and reading skills -- we're neurologically more malleable. Carr's anecdotes and the subsequent testimonials on his blog seem to point to the fact that maybe our brains never stop being malleable. No one denies that the Internet is, well, a big deal. We're struggling with what comes after that realization.

One of Carr's points of reference is found in a bit of Web 1.0: the clock. As soon as we started divvying up our days into hours and minutes and seconds, we started thinking, acting and living differently. He then cites Nietzsche's switch from longhand to a typewriter as a potentially fundamental shift in the man's timeless prose. The Internet, by logical extension, is pulling the same type of paradigm-shifting shtick.

The essay is looking at a picture much bigger than the Google logo. There is an almost obligatory aside on the company, and we learn is that the company wants to develop artificial intelligence. But it ends with this reality:

"The faster we search 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 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 last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It's in their economic interest to drive us to distraction."

So... yes, Google is a big player in the Web arena, but so are ad companies and blog hubs and viral videos and (you know) the list goes on and on.

Hyper-accelerated self-reflection is exhausting at times. Carr's piece is one of many that attempt (and sometimes succeed at) making sense of where we're going. But Google isn't everything; we need to discontinue thinking of Google as the Internet Age's umbrella -- its dominance is as much a product of the Internet as our own evolving neuroses. The Atlantic cover and headline was a cop out, a diluted interpretation of an important article. Google may be an "evergreen" item, now, but we should avoid substituting it for all the exploding nuances and intricacies and absurdities that are underpinning our evolving consciousnesses.