Google and the End of Wisdom

Bob Batchelor

What today’s students do not realize is that what Google provides is sometimes fact and oftentimes opinion – but never answers.

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.”

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

Author: Mark Bauerlein

Publisher: Penguin

Publication date: 2008-05

Length: 272 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $24.95

Image: 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.

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

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2008-10

Length: 256 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $24.95

Image: 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".

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