Google Isn't Making Us Dumber

The internet has become an incredible source of information, but some are troubled by even its more mundane quarters. A Salon.com article written by Ian Leslie issued the warning that 'Google makes us all dumber...' but is that really the case?


 Search engines give us access to more information than ever (image courtesy of  Krypton Radio )

Search engines give us access to more information than ever (image courtesy of Krypton Radio)

By Your Command

Once upon a time, when we wanted our latest dose of humorous cat photos, we had to 'go online'. We had to click a button to do it and listen to a lot of screeching from our 56K modem, the irritation of which has to this day only ever been exceeded by dubstep! Today, the line between online and offline barely even exists anymore. With smartphones and tablets, we're usually only offline if something has failed, or we've run into a 'not spot'. The fact that we're always online guarantees constant access to information. Everyone has access to the same information, and in freedom to access information, everyone is treated the same. Yes, some information lies behind 'paywalls', but everyone who pays gets access. This makes accessing information online egalitarian. The sheer extent of information available is remarkable. It's as if the internet is a collection of specialist hobby magazines, with site after site providing the most detailed knowledge you can imagine. With access to so much information, usually for free, I find it hard to share the view that Google, or any other such engine is making us dumber. If anything, I think it increases the likelihood that, with so much information close at hand, we'll develop an extraordinary talent for information processing.

Ian Leslie's article asks if Google is making us dumber, but close to its conclusion expresses the opinion that students are expected to answer questions rather than ask them. This is something that's already been debated for years across newspapers and magazines. If this is true, then the policies that created this narrow approach toward teaching must have been in place for a long time, perhaps since the earliest days of Google, possibly even earlier than that. If students then have been effectively trained to be poor at asking questions, shouldn't more fingers be pointed at education policy and fewer at search engines?

The article also presents Amit Sinhal, a vice president at Google, and head of their core ranking team, as being concerned about the quality of question asking. However, in a recent interview with AFP.com he disagreed with the view that easy access to information was making us lazy: "There were worries about the Gutenberg printing press -- that it would destroy the beauty of the spoken word, but we're far better off with the knowledge it's brought". Rather than wanting to tap the brakes, Amit wants to keep going, to transform the search engine into a kind of personal assistant that's always ready to supply information, perhaps even before you know you need it. Whether this is a good thing or not, it's a different picture to the one painted by Salon's article.

 

 Using search engines effectively requires thought (image courtesy of  Wikipedia )

Using search engines effectively requires thought (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I Search, Therefore I Am

It also should also be remembered that the purpose of search engines is to help us locate information, not to train us to ask better questions. In this light, Google's Panda updates, which are designed to help us get access to quality information, can be viewed as useful. Learning how to ask good questions is more the province of Socratic philosophy. It's a specific, academic skill. It's still valuable though and perhaps more importance should be placed upon it in the teaching of children and young adults. However, trying to make information available whilst preserving its quality, and making it harder to copy and paste that information into student essays is having your cake and eating it territory.

We're the first internet generation, so we can't be expected to know how to solve the issues the internet raises straight away. Every great breakthrough comes with teething problems and challenges society to find good or effective ways of integrating it.

If we need to develop greater abilities in the processing of large amounts of information to prevent information overload, an issue that was clearly understood long before the internet, we'll also need to develop the ability to sift that information for quality. Yes, search engines are already filtering, but even with really good filtering of information for quality, we can still be presented with an absolute glut of information.

In any event, we're unable, thankfully, to take the world back to a pre-internet era. Complaining about the internet having too much information or making it available too readily is a bit like complaining about the sky being blue. We have to learn to live with our own creations, with our own 'children'. This is, in part, a generational issue, and viewed in that way it's no different to games, rap, and rock and roll. The world survived them just fine, so much so that the cultural radicals of 40 - 60 years ago are now as mainstream as it comes. Would you believe that Fleetwood Mac used to get banned from some venues?

 

 Search engines are a modern necessity (image courtesy of  Wikipedia )

Search engines are a modern necessity (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Thinking: The Talking of the Soul With Itself

Ian Leslie's ultimate conclusion that the internet should compliment our talent for asking questions, rather than replace it, is just about spot on. Tools are just that: tools. We need to wield the tools we create, not be wielded by them. The logical response though is to learn how to wield them because the alternative is turning into Luddites and smashing them.

It's just a shame that an article that reaches that conclusion, and has some interesting ideas and insights, is topped with the headline 'Google is making us all dumber...'

How have you adjusted to a world in which so much information is available so readily? Please tell me in the comments.