By Ben Halbrooks
Instant answers smother truth
On TheVerge.com, Thomas Ricker gives a comical reflection on his increasing forgetfulness: Google's making me dumb. He blames the search giant for its ready-made, easy-access answers to everything: "Why memorize anything when it's so readily accessible?" His tech-dependent laziness might sound familiar – but is he right?
On Salon.com, writer Ian Leslie probes the question further from a psychological and philosophical perspective. His piece Google makes us all dumber is an excellent read.
Leslie warns: "Google is known as a search engine, yet there is barely any searching involved anymore. The gap between a question crystallizing in your mind and an answer appearing at the top of your screen is shrinking all the time. As a consequence, our ability to ask questions is atrophying... One day, the gap between question and answer will disappear. I believe we should strive to keep it open. That gap is where our curiosity lives. We undervalue it at our peril."
The irony is unmistakable: in the internet age, we have an overabundance of information but a corresponding lack of wisdom and depth of inquiry. When it's all at our fingertips, we lose the thrill of the hunt. It's what Leslie calls "a short-cut to stupidity." Contrast that to the tireless curiosity of a child and the never-ending barrage of "How?" and "Why?" questions: "Somehow, children instinctively know there is a vast amount they don't know, and they need to dig beneath the world of appearances." We need to recapture that sense of wonder.
Instead, we're just a few clicks away from being know-it-alls, a mile wide and an inch deep. "The Internet can make us feel omniscient," notes Leslie – but it's a foolish illusion. Case in point: just a few months ago in the Wall Street Journal, atheist Dan Dennett forecast the demise of religion at the hands of the internet, arguing that religions survive only by tightly controlling what their followers know. Where Christianity's concerned, Dennett couldn't be more wrong. But when we equate a simple Google query with the search for truth, what do you expect?
It's not just Google. The tech world is full of companies using anticipatory algorithms that promise to "know what you want before you do," as if that were a thing to be desired. (...Maybe we just don't know we want it yet?) Why track down the perfect present when you can just use an Amazon gift guide for anyone from "Boyfriend/Husband" to "Motor Lover?"
Of course, the problem isn't really the technology itself; it's how we're using it to outsource our humanity. Leslie puts it well:
"We will only realize the potential of technology and humans working together when each is focused on its strengths... Technology visionary Kevin Kelly succinctly defines the appropriate division of labor: "Machines are for answers; humans are for questions." The practice of asking perceptive, informed, curious questions is a cultural habit we should inculcate at every level of society."
Here's to that.
Courtesy Fixed Point, www.fixed-point.org