Google and the End of Wisdom

[9 July 2009]

By Bob Batchelor

Driving my four-year old daughter to a park in our rural Florida town, a sign in large, black capital letters outside a church caught my eye: “There are some questions that can’t be answered by Google.” For the next hour, while Kassie climbed on the multicolored monkey bars and slid down the slick, curly-q slide, I pondered that sign. At home, I decided to enter several “big-picture” queries into the search engine just to test out the assertion. Below are the questions and number of results:

Is there a God? – 78.4 million

Will my daughter be happy? – 39.2 million

When will I die? – 1.06 billion

Exploring a couple dozen hits returned some interesting information and a broad swath of Americana in the early years of the 21st century, such as the woman who wrote to Yahoo! Answers several months ago wondering why her new baby girl “will not smile or laugh in my presence”. I also visited The Death Clock, a Web site that professes to predict the exact date an individual will die (In my case, a rather depressing Tuesday, 10 June 2042 – I mean who wants to die on a Tuesday at 74-years-old?)

Growing obsessed with the challenge on the church sign, I considered the questions I entered and the information Google returned. It soon dawned on me: Google cannot answer any questions, because Google is not creating the content for its search results. The “answers” are obtained from the approximately 30.3 billion Web pages indexed by the major search engines. This content is the lifeblood of the Internet.

When a person “Googles” themselves or something else, they are essentially asking the search engine to rank pages based on an intricate algorithm, basically using software to search, read, and index Web content. Therefore, Google answers almost nothing. Perhaps that church sign should read “There are some answers a person can’t find by googling.”

cover art

The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)

Mark Bauerlein

(Penguin; US: May 2008)

While it might be eye-opening to find out one’s (presumed) death date or reassuring to ask questions of and find answers from an online community, more important are the long-term cultural implications of the meaning behind that sign. These are important issues as the Web becomes more ubiquitous and we progress further into the digital age. Perhaps it’s not such a leap that one equates Google with God because the results are derived so easily and seem, in some odd way, absolute. Maybe the certainty is based on the large number of hits or the attempt at finding results on any topic, but the notion of Google as God, well, speaks to people.

As a college teacher I am confronted every day with the role Google, and by extension, the Internet, plays in the learning process. The current situation would startle most people, even in light of the cottage industry that has sprouted up labeling the millennial generation in the US dim-witted, such as Mark Bauerlein’s highly-publicized The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, or Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic (July/August 2008) that argues Google is essentially rewiring our brains away from deep thinking.

cover art

iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind Author: Gary Small, Gigi Vorgan

(HarperCollins; US: Oct 2008)

So far, the “Google and the Internet are good/bad” argument breaks down along the lines represented by Bauerlein and Carr. Either the researcher examines the cultural outcomes of technology on young people or looks at the impact of technology on the way individual’s process information. For example, neuroscientist Gary Small argues in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind that the influx of digital technology places people’s minds in “continuous partial attention,” causing “a heightened state of stress.” As a result, Small contends, people “no longer have time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions. Instead, they exist in a sense of constant crisis—on alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news or information at any moment. ” The downside is that individual’s learn to feed off this excited moment based on perpetual connectivity, he explains, thus finding constant access to the Internet “irresistible”.

Google is God

Google is God

We are producing a generation of lazy thinkers who gleefully use the information easily access via technology as an excuse for shoddy cognitive abilities.

The challenge educators face is simple on the surface, but complex in its repercussions. Returning to the message on the church sign, I think one would be hard pressed to find a mainstream American under the age of 30 who did not feel that all their questions could be answered by Google. Today’s students, from first graders to those in graduate school, have been taught to find specific, correct answers. Google does this quickly and efficiently. For them, Google is a godsend. Or, perhaps, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once asked, “Is Google God? “ Friedman posed the question six years ago, but it is relevant today, given the way young people have grown reliant on the search engine in that time.

Take, for example, the stories I hear more and more frequently about graduate students citing Wikipedia in research papers or middle school students who cannot conduct the most basic library research and, as a result, turn in papers cribbed from the first five Google results, whether those hits consist of BillyBob’s Shakespeare blog and the like or a reputable academic or government site. What today’s students do not realize is that what Google provides is sometimes fact and oftentimes opinion – but never answers. Sadly, I have even seen several Wikipedia citations in academic journals.

In the last year, I estimate that I have taught approximately 850 students in a large lecture class at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Since the class focuses on the development of mass communications historically and culturally, we spend a great deal of time discussing the Internet and social media.

From class discussions and the online journaling the students complete throughout the course, I realized that two profound consequences arise from the pervasive use of Google and other forms of Internet-based technology, such as Wikipedia:

  • Most troubling is that few – perhaps a mere five to 10 percent of the students – will read anything assigned in hard copy, because they no longer have the ability to concentrate long enough to read, particularly from books. It has gotten so bad that one student told me that he won’t even wait for a Web site to load if it takes more than two or three seconds! What hope does a book have under these circumstances, whether it is Hemingway or their mass communications textbook?

  • In general, students are willing to forfeit advanced thinking (critical thinking, in-depth research, and healthy skepticism) for the speed and quickness of Google search results. They are so programmed by standardized testing in K-12 education that finding “facts” online is deemed sufficient to meet college-level expectations. Since standardized tests rely heavily on multiple choice examinations, the search for the single, correct answer is paramount.

  • Unfortunately, models evaluating critical thinking, particularly Bloom’s Taxonomy, rate this kind of knowledge acquisition the lowest. As a result, America is producing many college students and later graduates who can only manage the most basic thinking skills, such as recall and memorization. This may get them through college – collecting the lambskin diploma they feel is their right, given the customer service attitude of many students – but it will not prepare them for the rigors necessary to succeed as lawyers, political analysts, artists of caliber, or other creative professionals.

    Poor critical thinking in college leads to substandard thinking as adults, not the kind of skills necessary in confronting global challenges. Thus, the reliance on Google and Wikipedia for quick answers in completing a college-level paper has ramifications. We are producing a generation of lazy thinkers who gleefully use the information easily access via technology as an excuse for shoddy cognitive abilities.

    Most students are not fond of the alternative. The antithesis of simple thinking is hard work based on reading, discussion, reflection, and creating new knowledge based on the accumulation of facts, and basically critiquing one’s own thinking. Instead of putting forth such effort, which is certainly difficult, today’s students use technology as a way of outsourcing their thinking – no questions asked.

    While early Web gurus believed the Internet would democratize the world and provide a democratic platform of critical thinking about the world and oneself, today’s students use the Web to surround themselves with people, brands, and topics that are compatible to their views. As such, students follow every move of their “friends” on Facebook or Tweet back and forth with people who are just like them and have the same worldviews. They are not challenged to consider another way of looking at and being in the world – they are missing a critical exercise in compassion. 

    What do today’s college students do with the free time created by cutting corners in their study time? (Those that don’t have to hold down jobs while in college, anyway.) Many simply spend more time on Facebook or watching YouTube or Hulu videos. For evidence to back up this statement, take a walk through any university library in the United States. What one finds is a sea of laptops logged on to Facebook, with students concerned more about creating pithy status updates than – gasp – delving into a good or at least illuminating book.

    Teachers will do just about anything to promote reading, but the pleads fall not on deaf ears, but ears filled with the ever-present iPod buds. This summer, I offered an electronic copy of a text and another in three-holed looseleaf just to gauge student interest. I thought that perhaps if they did not think it looked like a textbook, they might actually read it. Wishful thinking, they still do not read the book.

    At many other universities in America, the library has morphed into a social setting, barely even pretending to be a place to study. College libraries have become a space for sharing YouTube videos, chatting with sorority sisters or friends, but not for quietly reading. At USF, for example, most students beeline directly for the Starbucks just inside the doors and immediately leave after receiving their order. If students congregate anywhere, it is in common areas where they have wi-fi access and can talk. The library is basically empty.

    The long-term consequence of ignoring critical thinking skills is that people rely less on the power of their own minds and more on the “facts” discovered online – and equate that unquestioned information they may have retained for a while with actual knowledge. The status quo is no longer questioned.  Sadly, this is the kind of thinking that is rewarded in today’s academic institutions. I would guess that we have students graduating with honors who have barely cracked a book in over four years.

    Wisdom develops over time as a person stacks up experiences and finds measures to constantly reengage with the changing nature of the world at large. Relying on answers from a search engine, even if it produces thousands of results faster than the blink of an eye, cannot compare to the simple, beautiful act of sitting quietly for 15 minutes, disconnected from the computer—and thinking.

    Is Google God…Do questions exist that the search engine cannot answer? These are challenging issues. The transformation that must occur is moving from using Google and the Web as a means of searching for facts to using it as a tool for exploring, interrogating, and questioning the larger world.

    By the way, typing “Is Google God” into the search engine produces 82.6 million hits.

    Bob Batchelor teaches at the University of South Florida and writes on modern American popular culture. He has written or edited 10 books, including The 2000s (Greenwood Press) and the four-volume American Pop: Popular Culture Decade by Decade. Bob is currently working on books examining John Updike and Bob Dylan. His Web site is at and he runs the blog

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