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Defined by Google

Steve Hodgkinson | Aug. 20, 2008
We are what we eat ... but are we also what we Google? Steve Hodgkinson ponders the parallels between our thickening waists and our thinning attention spans.

Take a while to reflect away from the constant bombardment of digital information that flows into and out of our lives every day. Time to change down a gear, intellectually speaking, to something that requires more than a minute or so to read.

The now generation

Ovum logoSo much of our online media is dedicated to things that can be done in a minute. According to Alexa.com's rankings, the ten most popular websites globally are (in order): Yahoo!, Google, YouTube, Windows Live, Microsoft Network, MySpace, Wikipedia, Facebook, Blogger and Orkut. Ten powerful engines for furiously finding, creating, publishing and spinning around the lightweight ideas, images, videos, stories, social chit-chat and trivial bric-a-brac of our digital lives.

I invite you to take time out from the digital noise and read Nicholas Carr's 'Is Google making us stupid?' in The Atlantic magazine, a 10-minute read in print and also available online. Carr wonders if instant access to a stream of just-in-time knowledge bytes is making us lazy readers and therefore lazy and shallow thinkers. He observes that our brains are becoming less able to concentrate on reading long text pieces, soon becoming bored and hunting for the next link, the next idea. His comment "Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski" paints a visual picture many of us can identify with.

Never shrinking

But isn't it amazing what can be discovered by some energetic swimming around, digital snorkelling if you will. I, for one, often marvel at the excitement of discovering new ideas and connections using the internet-the digital equivalent in a few moments of a day spent in a library. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr famously observed in 1858: "Every now and then a man's mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions." It's a buzz to seek out things that stretch.

There is, by the way, an interesting link between Carr's Google article and this famous quote. Holmes' wisdom was also published in The Atlantic monthly magazine ... though almost exactly 150 years ago, as part of a series of monographs subsequently compiled into a book titled The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.

In 1858, philosophers enthused at the way a new idea could expand one's intellectual horizons. By 2008, there are so many new ideas, so easily found, that our minds are overstretched and overwhelmed by them.

Intellectual overload

Here's a question to ponder. Is consuming fast facts from the Internet, without intellectual effort, messing with our heads in the same way that consuming fast food without having to cook it is messing with our waistlines?

 

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