Is Google killing General Knowledge? Emphatically, No!

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.

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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.

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6 Responses

  1. The credibility of information found anywhere depends upon the reliability of its sources, which continues to be true even for “professional” journalists, both print and online.

    Google (and other services) also serve some of our marginalized citizens – those without access to transportation, or access to educational institutions, with limited funds to travel (any distance), with physical / health constraints that make leaving home problematic, and so on.

    I’m not saying that the computer has replaced the puppy as “man’s best friend” – but online communities and resources reach out 24/7 and don’t depend on tax-dollar supported infrastructure, library hours, a friend’s car, child care availability, an elder-care helper…

    If Google reinforces short-term memory (and its loss), or reduced attention span, it more than offsets that by pointing us to learning environments, making it easy for us to expand those environments, and repetition (which encourages real learning).

    What matters, I believe, is that we CONTINUE TO TEACH OUR CHILDREN real “research” skills, so they know how to manage themselves when the Internet is down, in cities (or countries) where there isn’t the same kind of web access, and in general, in life.

    • Good points, but I doubt the internet will be “down” much (or at least I hope not) for those that have it already. Nevertheless it will also be good to have some research ability / general knowledge when you are not sitting at a computer (of course, smartphones like iPhone are even challenging this belief …).

      In developing countries however it is definitely a fair point that access to internet is more limited/non-existent, and this could be hindering developing countries from maintaining pace with more developed countries.

      Nevertheless, I do think that the real “research” skills you mention are still very important today (it’s not enough to just google something – in my view, children today still need to read books, and be inquisitive).

  2. I read an article in The Economist in 2006 that referred to a study that compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica articles:

    http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displayStory.cfm?story_id=6739977

  3. Interesting – I particularly like the conclusion (short and sweet):

    “In any case, most people don’t need an expert to tell them that, while Britannica is readable and reliable, Wikipedia is a fantastically useful source of rough and ready information. And, on top of that, it’s free.”

    I remember seeing several articles like that, including this one about Shane Fitzgerald, who purposely duped Wikipedia readers and saw journalists copy his (fake) material without confirming it, and using it in their newspaper obituaries of Maurice Jarre:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2009/0507/1224246059241.html

  4. An interesting article in today’s Guardian:

    “Poor memory? Blame Google” (Research finds people are adapting ability to remember because of power of search engines to remember for them)

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/jul/15/poor-memory-blame-google

  5. Another interesting article, from BBC “Internet’s memory effects quantified in computer study”:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14145045

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