In response to an article written by Brian Cathcart in the current issue (Volume 2, Issue 4, Summer 2009) of Economist’s “Intelligent Life” magazine (which, by the way, I find to generally be a very good read). Click here for the article.
The article purports that today’s ability to google the answer to almost any question, and have a near immediate answer, is potentially reducing the extent to which today’s society accumulates, or prides itself, in holding and increasing a broad and deep ‘general knowledge’.
Personally I see that this is in fact a misinterpretation of what Google means for our social development. It is correct that answers to more questions can be found quicker, and that one can choose to short-cut ‘knowing’ a fact, by simply ‘looking it up’, but it was always possible to look up some facts, and yet those that prided themselves in their general knowledge used the available sources to provide them with the facts.
BG (before Google) we typically accumulated our general knowledge from books and other people (directly, or via media such as TV, radio). Today is no different – Google is simply another media source where we learn our general knowledge. We might not remember everything (especially knowing that Google can easily be searched once again), but those who are interested in their topic will remember a part of what they see on the internet.
Of course, there is a limit to what a brain can store, and wherever that limit is, it is somewhere well short of what Google can provide access to! As such, Google can help with the rest. We don’t all need to be capable of winning general knowledge game shows, but a healthy knowledge of some facts both creates interesting people (if they are used in conversation) and is necessary for navigating our way through life (at least for very basic knowledge). Whether people choose to retain such facts is probably driven more by social class, cultural and demographic trends, than the arrival of Google.
Google’s search results typically include a Wikipedia article on the chosen topic in the top five or so responses, and I consider Wikipedia to be developing a place alongside Encyclopedia Britannica as one of the great sources of knowledge (subject to the caveat below). Those that read Wikipedia, and are interested in having good general knowledge will remember some facts and as such Google is increasing general knowledge. Indeed the author comments in surprise that a look at the quiz world indicates that “general knowledge is in much better nick that you might imagine”, and concludes that somehow this proves that “the idea of a pool of information shared within culture and a time, is potent enough to survive”.
The author also points out that general knowledge is evolving – whereas each generation would historically have held a certain portfolio of differing facts to previous generations, today the internet, and search engines like Google, allow the aging, now ‘unfashionable’ facts to be just as retrievable as where U2 will be playing their next concert.
In summary, I think the writer of the article got his hypothesis wrong this time – nevertheless, it is an interesting topic, and one worth debating (and I also appreciate opportunity to learn the story of the Egyptian god, Thoth [or 'Theuth', as I have found via Google]). Possibly a better argument would be “Is Google leading us astray?” – as proven by a number of high-profile cases on Wikipedia, the internet is not always fully accurate, and if, via Google, this is now our first source for knowledge, then we our general knowledge may be inaccurate, regardless of how much we remember.