Today's "food for thought" post comes to us courtesy of ZDNet, where the "Googling Google" blog asks, "Is Google changing how our brains physically work?". Every now and then, we should ask if the constant access to easily accessible information is changing the way we think. Good, healthy thing to do.
A while back, I pondered in a similar vein, explaining (or attempting to explain) why we use Google the way we do. After all, remembering the information may not be so important as remembering how to look up the information.
You might just think that all this reliance on easy search would make our brains soft and lazy, the way the invention of the cheap electric calculator kind of wiped out our math skills.
Except it doesn't really. I see calculators as filling in for the trivial, monotonous work that we shouldn't have to do anyway. I used to pride myself on being able to perform complex calculations in my head. I'm talking up to four figure long division and figuring square roots, here! During a stint when I worked in a warehouse, I had to do mental math constantly - it's the only way to keep track of a pallet of stock with six layers of boxes stacked 17 per layer.
But those days are gone. I need a prompt to work with anything over three figures, and square roots I've forgotten how to extract by hand. Yet instead, now I have the calculator do the grunt work, while my mind is free to remember the formulas for finding a hypotenuse, convert radians to degrees, finding the volume of a sphere, 3D coordinates in space, and all sorts of higher-math concepts. Really, I no longer care to show off how I can split a restaurant check four ways accounting for tax and gratuity. I don't even keep a running total in my head when I shop. I no longer think it noble to be a human cash register.
Calculators were invented for a reason; not to assist those who were deficient with math, but to let everybody move beyond math and use their brains for more important things.
And now I'm seeing Internet search that way.
Before computers were common at the consumer level, we had a greater need for books. I still own books, but one/tenth as many as I used to. This is because the Internet has replaced all the reference manuals I used to keep. Beyond that, let me explain how libraries used to work:
To find something out, you'd go to the library and there would be this huge bank of filing cabinets. All the filing cabinets contained little alphabetized index cards. Whether you called it Dewey decimal, Library of Congress categories, or just a really good cross-reference, you looked up your subject (usually using 'keywords' though we didn't call it that) and picked either specific book titles or the general area where you'd find books of that subject space together. Then you'd go hunt until you found the book you'd need, but you wouldn't read it straight through - you'd flip to the back and look it up in the index. Getting the page number from the index, you'd scan that page and find the fact you were looking for. Done.
These days, you'd type the same set of keywords for your subject into a search engine, then scan the links looking for one that looks helpful, and then you'd visit that page and either scan it or use the "find within page" function of the web browser. And there's the fact you needed to look up. Done.
See, the process is nearly identical. Even the skills required and steps taken are similar. It just happens much faster.
Just like the calculator freed us from having to mentally compute triangle perimeters, search engines are freeing us from having to stuff pounds of trivia into our brains. I no longer care that I can't remember the capitol of every state in the US, or who's prime minister of Belgium right now, or what the base unit of currency in India is called. Sure, there's stuff that I know anyway, but we can come to a point where we can equate "knowing how to find out quickly" with "knowing". Sort of.
Remember Ken Jennings? He was the amazing Jeopardy contestant who cleaned up on the show with 74 consecutive wins in a row. Now that guy was a human database! He might go down in history as the last great master of the art of carrying around information in your head, before everybody just gave up and let the computer do the remembering for them.
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Update: Somebody at Wired just managed to toddle close to the same point I make here. This worries me. Wired has caught up to within one month behind me. I must blog faster.
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