I love controversy. Headlines like: ’Is Google evil?’ really provoke and I’m always fascinated to read arguments such as ‘Google is affecting university research’. Apparently when students decide on topics for their dissertations they Google their ideas first and if there’s little information they try another topic. That makes me laugh really because surely research should also be about looking for new information, going where no one else has been? Otherwise, how do we expand our horizons? What would the New World Explorers have done in the 14th and 15th centuries if they had relied on having a map before they set off?
Google Whack or Is Google the definitive search engine?
Have you noticed that after typing a Google search that brings up anything but what you are looking for, you usually give up, unless you are Dave Gorman of course and then you write a book! We are beginning to see Google as the definitive search engine, but should we simply accept what has taken 0.003 seconds to be placed in front of us? Will we ultimately lose our capacity to be patient or keep searching?
Twelve calf skins per book or Google’s online digitisation?
No doubt you are reading this thinking, ‘Oh how simplistic!’ But I’m going to challenge your thinking so listen up and listen good! Knowledge is a dangerous thing and a little knowledge, well, you know where I’m headed. In the past, only those with money could have access to written wisdom; it would take twelve calf skins to make a book, so it wasn’t something you’d read on the train to Swindon and leave on the seat for the next passenger. There was nothing democratic about that situation but in 2004 Google announced a huge digitisation programme to make full-text contents of books available on line 1, so perhaps the jury is out. But this is the same company who affects what you see in a search from one day to the next when they change their algorithms for example.
‘Are they old enough to remember anything of the time before?’ Margaret Atwood 2
The internet and Google especially, has allowed us to search for anything; we are living in a virtual meritocracy, unless of course you live in a country who can filter your searches but that would be a blog all to itself. So in some respects Google is god. Instead of having to sit in a dusty library trying to find a way around a microfiche I can type in a question and easily find the answer I require. Great, it works and I know I have the research skills to analyse what I’m reading, evaluate the sources, compare and contrast context and the specific narrative arch or hegemony, because I grew up with books and I was taught research skills. Let’s not forget, anyone born post 2000 will not know the world pre- internet and their mind set is certainly very different.
Swimming in a Shallow Data Pool
But now, researching no longer seems individual, you only have to look at trends to see exactly what people are searching for and we all swim around in the same fairly shallow information pool. If the answer isn’t on Google page 1, we may possibly look through the following pages but hey, do you think I have time for that? As a consequence how we think is being re-wired. No one has conducted long-term research regarding the internet’s capacity to affect cognition, but anecdotal evidence must surely point to a change in how we read, think and form conclusions?
University College London have been conducting a five year research progamme on two research sites run by the British Library and another UK consortium of education providers and the conclusion drawn is that those using these sites were definitely ‘skimming’ and rarely revisited articles.
Not Reading But Power Browsing
It was decided; ‘It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense. So, imagine you might ask someone at a cocktail party: ’What have you been power browsing lately?’
Just In Time Not Just In Case
It’s the success of a search engine such as Google which is leading us to this type of behaviour and maybe it’s a good thing after all; tell me why I spent so long learning lists of capital cities or currencies when now I can Google information like this and can check if it’s current? Books used to have a tremendous lag time between commission and publication but now Google can bring you brand new information. We have turned into ‘just in time’ readers not ‘just in case’ learners, but isn’t that great, when you consider we were mostly learning from out of date text books anyway?
Is Google really making us stupid?
The questions we might ask are: ‘What power does Google have to shape our lives?’ ‘Should we be relying so heavily on one company?’ or ‘Is Google really making us stupid?’ Certainly our information is being shaped; companies can spend huge sums of money, for example to get their copy on page 1 and just because everyone else views it that doesn’t mean the contents are accurate. At the same time, we all have a voice and we can self- publish so different types of information, experience, historiography are adding to human knowledge as you are reading this.
‘The faster we can extract, the more productive we become as thinkers’
One of the negatives is that in a world where speed is important we can end up recycling the same data but Google has other ideas and are looking to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” while also become ‘the perfect search engine,’. That means Google will “understand exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” As Nicholas Carr says in his article, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’,3 ’In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.’
Is Google Playing God?
Really? How many times have you seen the facts and jumped to a conclusion without thinking outside the box? How do we know what we want if we end up relying on what is presented to us? Google may well be hoping to develop the ultimate search engine which is another route towards artificial intelligence. Hans Moravec, in his 1988 book Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence4 invented a scenario where a mechanical surgeon strips out a human brain and manages to read each layer as it is pulled away; this information is transferred to a computer. The patient who then, in effect, inhabits the computer is brought back to consciousness and feels everything exactly as it was…or is it? Yet do I feel perturbed by Google playing God? Well if I believed in God, perhaps I might.
1 Pearson, D Books As History The British Library &Oak Knoll Press 2008
2 Atwood, M. The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage 1996
4 Moravec H Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence Cambridge: Harvard Press 1988