Sunday, October 19, 2014

Articles about how Google is making us dumber are making us dumber

Read this article and then come back.

[rant on] I AM SO TIRED OF THESE "TECH IS MAKING US STOOPID" ARTICLES! The wrong-think in here is extraordinary. First there's this gem:

"The gap between a question crystallizing in your mind and an answer appearing at the top of your screen is shrinking all the time. As a consequence, our ability to ask questions is atrophying."

Is it? It is? How do you know this? Is there research that suggests that we're less able to ask questions? Is there a link you could share? Or did you not know how to ask Google the right question to find some research on the subject?

 And this fun bit...

"But knowledge doesn’t just fill the brain up; it makes it work better. To see what I mean, try memorizing the following string of fourteen digits in five seconds: 74830582894062. Hard, isn’t it? Virtually impossible. Now try memorizing this string of fourteen letters: "lucy in the sky with diamonds." This time, you barely needed a second. The contrast is so striking that it seems like a completely different problem, but fundamentally, it’s the same. The only difference is that one string of symbols triggers a set of associations with knowledge you have stored deep in your memory."

AAARGHHH!!! So much wrong! So very not! First of all, let's please not conflate "information" with "knowledge" or "memory." Three different things! And the lyrics to "Lucy in the Sky" were already in my head! ARRGGHHH! So I didn't need ANY TIME to memorize it. But even if it were, memorization is also not information or knowledge.

 The author closes with ye olde chestnut that humans should do what we're good at, and computers what they are. He says, "Wikipedia and Google are best treated as starting points rather than destinations." RIGHT. THEY ARE. ALMOST ALWAYS. Because the answer to my question (the information) is going to relate to one of two kinds of situations.

1) Casual, impact-free curiosity. This is the realm of IMDB and a lot of Wikipedia queries. "Who was that guy in 'Home Alone' with the shovel?" or "What was the name of Herod's wife?" These are questions for which the information itself is, generally, the desired end result. I'm not going to do anything with that information besides just know it. Maybe it's for something that will stick, maybe not. The only difference between doing this online vs. old school is speed and convenience.

2) Questions asked because you will be using them to accomplish something. For example, "Recipe for gluten-free birthday cake," "Directions to Pittsburgh from Columbus," "How to get grease out of a tie," "Where to shop for ladders," "What should I weigh?" etc. etc. In each case, the information (if used) will be part of a series of activities that will, together, generate knowledge. Because knowledge is information in a useful format. For example, if I get a good recipe and don't make the cake, I have not increased my knowledge. I cannot tell you if it is truly a good, gluten-free cake. Nor if it's a cake at all. Nor how hard to bake, how expensive, how nice it smells. Once I bake it, though, I have knowledge of the value of the recipe.

And that's a good way to understand the difference between what Google can do for you and what it can't. Google can find recipes. Only you can bake a cake. Google can give you some information (some good, some better, some awful, some wrong). Only you can turn it into knowledge.
Here's what I resent about articles like this, however. The conflation of these very different mental tasks absolutely ignores the cost (in time and money) of acquiring information in the pursuit of knowledge. Now, I'm not talking about "question 1" type stuff above. If you want to be an expert on a certain type of information, memorization and long-form research will be key. If you want to lecture on a topic, you need to know it in your own widdle haid. But if I don't know that there are (for example) freeware alternatives to Photoshop, I might spend a LOT of time and money saving up for Photoshop, only to find that it doesn't help me. The quick answer to the question, "Are there free alternatives to Photoshop" will free up a lot of my resources to actually DO THE KNOWLEDGE GATHERING THING (image editing) that I'm interested in.

Yes. There are types of thinking that we should all pursue. Yes. Curiosity is important. Yes. Deep, frustrating, interesting problems require that you practice doing deep, frustrating, interesting research. But helping me find the nearest gas station or the expected weather in Chicago is not going to atrophy my creativity or invention.

FWIW, they said the same stuff about teaching "regular people" to read back when the printing press came out. Since farmers and peasants etc. have no need for school learnin', why would they waste their time on books? I translate this sentiment into modern times by asking, "Since many working people's jobs don't require deep knowledge of arcane details and trivia, why should they have access to a tool that allows them 'easy' answers they don't know how to earn on their own? They should have to be scientists and inventors to know that stuff."

In closing, if you think you can learn how to play an instrument, drive a car, have better sex, etc. from the Internet, you're already dumb without Google. To learn things, you have to do things. All Google, Wikipedia, IMDB et al do is remove some of the friction from gathering the necessary parts to START learning. [/rant]

PS: I've NEVER been any good at memorization and I've never had a bit of trouble (either pre- or post-internet) doing creative, layered, long-form thinking. The two are categorically different activities IMHO.


  1. The Internet has the potential to be the greatest tool for intellectual exploration ever invented, but only if it is treated as a complement to our talent for inquiry rather than a replacement for it. In a world awash in ready-made answers, the ability to pose difficult, even unanswerable questions is more important than ever.


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