Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, has been referenced so many times since its publication in 2008 that it’s firmly in cliché territory. He then expanded the topic into a celebrated book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The philosophical tennis played by the media over whether he was right seems to point to only one consensus: for good or ill, the Internet is changing our brains. That isn’t up for debate. The choice we face now, as individuals and as a society, is what to do with these new brains.
Two in the morning is the guiltiest time of night. 1:00 could still just be a late night, and 3:00 means you’re pulling an all-nighter. But 2:00 AM means that you just had to look at one more funny picture, or complete one more level of Halo 4, or whatever. I found myself once again looking at 2:00 AM on the clock several weeks ago and out of habit started spinning up the shame machine, before I realized I didn’t have to—I had stayed up late because I was learning French. Because I wanted to.
Duolingo, the language learning website, had sucked me in. After spending several hours the day before working on basic conversational French, I began to see that my impulses, normally quasi-destructive, had been converted into positive energy. There are creative people out there who recognize the basic facts that late nights, addiction and multiplayer gaming are among the many new patterns that we are hardwiring into our psyche. It might be hard for you to find a societal positive in that brief list, but these people are asking the questions, “What now?” and “What can we do with this?” Our new brains, just like our old ones, are still capable of lofty heights and murky depths. Duolingo stems the tide of Carr’s “shallows” and games the user back into using her mind to expand her world, instead of shutting it out.
I was turned on to Duolingo by my friend Zay. It launched in November, 2011, but really began to pick up steam towards the end of 2012, releasing an excellent iPhone app to mark its one year anniversary. Apparently it was like Rosetta Stone, but better, and free; this was enough to hook me. I don’t know whether it’s better, but it is free, and what he didn’t tell me was that it is addictive. It takes language learning and “gamifies” it, letting the user earn points that go towards unlocking more sets of words as well as the user’s total score, which in turn is put up on a leaderboard showing the progress of the user and her friends. For anyone who has ever leveled up a character in a fantasy game or evolved their Pokemon from a Charmander to a Charizard, this is like a crack addict hearing news that they found a way to make cocaine healthy.
But there’s more to Duolingo than turning language education into a dopamine-fueled battle royale. Duolingo was started as a project by Luis Von Ahn, professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He is most well known for his projects Captcha and reCaptcha, the latter of which was acquired by Google. Almost everyone has used reCaptcha at some point, since it has become one of the most commonly used security measures by websites that want to make sure you’re a human and not a robot.
What you might not know is that the weird, ribbony text you have to type in the box is actually pulled from books that are being digitized. Sometimes the computer has a hard time with a faded or damaged page, and your human eyes are able to turn that word into digital information when software can’t. I might spend only a few seconds typing a word for a website, but Von Ahn thought about those millions and millions of seconds people spend and realized the that there was an opportunity to get some serious work done. It’s worth taking fifteen minutes to hear his thoughts on “massive scale online collaboration” in his TED talk here.
ReCaptcha was and is a testament to the good made possible through technology like the Internet. Luis Von Ahn saw the potential to take that massive collaboration and use it to translate vast portions of the internet – if you take a look under Duolingo’s hood, you’ll find that every sentence you translate is being pulled from a website in that language. According to their YouTube pitch, “If one million people would use Duolingo to learn, the entirety of English Wikipedia could be translated into Spanish in just eighty hours.”
I recently had a conversation with my new friend David, a columnist for the Times-Free Press here in Chattanooga. We talked about how technology can dehumanize people. Examples that came to mind were pornography, escapism, addiction and the loss of meditation and perspective. But we were also starstruck as we got to see the Company Lab’s 3D printer; the opportunities it opens up are endless. David asked me about my faith (I grew up Presbyterian) and what kind of difficulties I faced as I tried to hold faith in one hand and technology in the other. As I worked out what I was trying to say, I found myself returning to one of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Every religion and culture describes its people as special, standing out against the pagans who surround them by how they think and act. The ancient Greeks invented the word barbarian to refer to the unthinking savages whose language sounded like “barbarbarbar” to the sophisticated Greek ear. Paul wrote to early Christians that they were to be “transformed by the renewing of their minds.” From their beginnings as a people, the Jews have always been a people “set apart,” priding themselves in ancient Israel on a law code that took care of the poor and the alien. Even the religion of our age, Apple, encourages its followers to “think different.” This is perfect for us as heirs of the Enlightenment, we receive this command from our forbears: think things through; be critical and don’t simply take in every cultural offering just because it’s there.
There is wisdom there. It is too easy to play doomsday prophet and long for a day of Luddite purity. Von Ahn and people like him hope to use the advance of technology as a kind of corrective force for itself and the destructive parts of human nature. Gamification has been adopted by many in the education world; using those the task-reward system has already helped younger students take their famous boundless energy and focus it. Wikipedia, reCaptcha, Duolingo and other opportunities for massive collaboration continue to expand our horizons. If we can continue to think of ways for technology to humanize, instead of dehumanize, then maybe we won’t end up locked away from each other and our world.