Google Is Making You Dumber

The search engine giant has so much information and is making it so easy for us to obtain it, that it discourages traditional avenues of learning such as studying, doing one’s own field work, and taking classes. Pro or con?

Pro: Fragmented Facts

I have a very popular Web site, so why do I continue to write books? And why do I stick with an even older medium and gather people around the flickering light of the campfire (okay, slide projector) to speak to them in person at an annual conference?

I do it because old media are highly superior to the Web for learning about complicated topics. The Web fragments information into tiny nuggets that can be digested during a two-minute visit to a Web site.

Google (GOOG) is your savior when you wish to ascertain an obscure fact, such as when King Christian IV built the Round Tower in Copenhagen. Searching for "Christian IV year Round Tower built" brings up the correct answer (1642) in the summaries for the top two search hits. No need to click through. Google has built the perfect answer engine by repurposing the labors of millions of authors.

But what about going beyond surface facts to deeper knowledge? What was the relative strength of the various European navies during the Renaissance, and how have they influenced the heritage of North Atlantic islands? Sure, there are articles about these topics on the Web, and you can find some of them with Google, but to really understand how these issues are connected and how developments hundreds of years ago continue to influence modern societies, you must read a book.

Our studies show that users spend less than two minutes visiting a Web site. Google encourages such superficial visits to multiple sites, because it makes it so easy to find additional places to surf. It’s not worth the hassle of digging into any one site when there are so many other tantalizing options one click away.

Web sites must be simple to survive under Google’s rule. But since Google creates superficial surfing, we need something else for learning. The Web is not a great learning environment, and we should acknowledge this fact, and emphasize other media for deep understanding.

Con: Enrichment Via Information

Google makes us more intelligent. Anything that gives us easy access to the vast and ever-changing body of knowledge is bound to stimulate us and make us think more deeply about the world. To claim Google makes us dumber implies that other projects that widely disseminate information, such as the Carnegie Libraries of the late 19th century and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) rural-life projects of the 1930s, logically could be criticized on the same grounds.

At the same time, we must remember Google was never intended to improve all aspects of intelligence—nor was it designed to make us more creative or more rational or better able to evaluate information.

Google creators Sergy Brin and Larry Page wanted their invention to capture common judgments rather than advanced intelligence. They wanted to build a system that organized information according to its popularity among the people and organizations that contribute to the Internet. While the results from other ways of searching for information are often amusing and expand users’ horizons, Brin and Page wrote, "They are often frustrating and consume precious time."

If Google is based on common judgment and simple popularity, how can it help but make us smarter? It raises the standard for research. It makes it harder for us to advocate uninformed opinions and promote ill-conceived plans. When a quick Google search reveals something that you have not considered or undermines your basic ideas, it lets you know you have not done enough work.

Nonetheless, does Google sometimes fail us? Definitely. Does it provide all the information that we will ever need? Of course not. Google may not turn us all into geniuses, but it will at least keep some of us from looking like dunces.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Peace Jaway

I often wonder if people for whom the story-telling medium was the traditional and therefore only appropriate way of learning outside one's own experience predicted that Gutenberg was bringing on the end of intelligence with his mass-producible printed books. After all, they wouldn't have the nuances that come fresh with every telling of a story, and they wouldn't force the reader to visualize the words with the mind's eye (or whatever argument would've equated to people of modern generations saying that movies and television will be the end of imagination as people turn away from books in droves to become zombies in front of their flickering screens). Of course, some people will use Google and the Internet unwisely. Others will soar to great heights on its wings. As with everything, we'll get out what we put in.

Wigginson

Google ruined my life by giving out so much information about my life to everyone.

Jeff

Your [anti-Google] opinions are unjustified and obviously biased due to your inability to use a tool efficiently, likely because you were not taught how to use it and you were not taught how to teach yourself.

Google is a tool just like anything else. Wielding the tool with the correct motive and skills, one can gain more knowledge than one would ever learn from a book alone. Simple proof: Google can inform you of multiple books to read on a topic and also provide other resources. Book + anything relevant = greater than book alone.

Leonid S. Knyshov

This seems to me a continuation of the eternal "calculators are evil" debate in our schools. First it's calculators, then PDAs, then laptops, and now it's real-time access to information.

It is inevitable that the entire compendium of our civilization will be accessible to every human being on this planet.

If not Google, then some other entity will make it happen eventually. The world is becoming a largely interconnected place. It is becoming possible to share curricula, as the Open Courseware MIT project is demonstrating.

Google Scholar is another, less-known project to index scientific content specifically.

I already have voice-based access to the Google index from my Bluetooth-enabled phone. That means I can access this data by merely touching my ear-piece and telling it to search Google (can be done through Microsoft VoiceCommand on Windows Mobile). Another way is to simply call a voice-to-Internet gateway from any device. Does that sound familiar to you?

Real-time access to global data is here now. Google is enabling it, and it will only become more pervasive. This should make learning a whole lot more fun.

Just ask students who used to dread encyclopedias. Ask the students who dreaded the research-skills classes. That ability is now innate to our students.

I believe that, if anything, instant access to unlimited information through services like Google will make us much smarter.

Jacob

Google is not making you dumber. You are dumb, or else you wouldn't have started such childish nonsense.

J Court

I feel there's also a matter of trust--can I really be absolutely certain information gleaned from some unknown Web site is completely reliable? Might it not be the erroneous opinion of someone not really qualified to advise on the subject in question? Unless I can be sure I can trust the Web site, I still tend to reach for my reference books as well.

Vasant Hegde

Well, I'm an ardent user of Google's search engine. I still, however, read books on various subjects and even have a hobby of collecting books.

I feel Google is benefactor rather than bane. I'm a software engineer and need to develop some complicated software involving multiple OS applications developed by various software companies. Sometime you get such a vague error during software development that the manual you have with you or in the nearest library can't help you there. Even for that matter, sometimes the software company's Web site can't help you. But I've had luck with some blogs out there in the ocean of the Web. How do you search for those blogs? Google.

Similarly, you need a quick answer on certain subjects while you are working on a related subject. Rather than running to the library and wasting time searching volumes of books for that one paragraph of knowledge, it's better to go to Google.

Does that mean we'll be on the Web just Googling all day? No. In the subject we have interest in, we will definitely go for books and read them.

Thomas Carmona

Google has made me dumber. I now spell Gogol G-O-O-G-L-E.

b

"This seems to me a continuation of the eternal 'calculators are evil' debate in our schools."

As a college math tutor who never used calculators in any of his math classes, my experience has been that students who use calculators are much dumber in basic math skills than students who don't use them. I think all classes except very advanced ones should get rid of calculators. They only provide a crutch that hinders students' learning.

Jack McD

I agree with Leonid S. Knyshov. When I was in college, calculators were banned from final math exams, but slide rules were allowed. Obviously, calculators are superior and more accurate. There are always people who feel the old ways are better.

Knowledge is not only what you know in your head, but knowing where to find an answer to a problem or question. Google allows almost instant access to much of the world's knowledge. But it also brings in false information or opinion disguised as fact, as do books. The ability to filter and verify what's correct is the challenge for scholars and researchers. What form it takes, books or Google, doesn't really matter. The advantage of Google over books is speed and convenience.

P.S. Does anyone want to buy a seldom-used Post Versalog Slide Rule, circa 1960?

Bubba

Google made me smarter by allowing me to avoid traditional media outlets and get filtered information. No one is saying that when you start using Google, you stop going to other media for learning. If folks want to go other places to learn, they should--it's a good thing. On the other hand, folks who were too lazy to go anywhere to learn can now log on and learn. As a result, the general IQ is on the rise.

Don't be a G-Hater.

Owsh

I won't even read your article, because your subtitle says enough. Stop living in the past. Why would you do fieldwork others have already done? For those of us who actually need to do research, I'm pretty sure we can figure it out without Google. The general public doesn't need to do real research.

Round T

You make you dumber.
You make you smarter.

T Ayenew

I nominate both Google and Wiki for the Nobel Peace Prize. I have yet to see any medium, any source of money, any project, or any idea that allowed such opportunity to discover, grow, and learn--and made it all available to a large part of the planet that is not called USA. If you are wealthy, live in the suburbs, and have access to all kinds of first-hand research, you sir/madam possibly have been damaged by Google. Even that I doubt. If I were a genuine researcher, I would strive not to reinvent the wheel once I found that the idea was already known (use Google; it helps). I would focus on ideas still a mystery to our planet.

JJ

Google makes you dumber when you think it's everything.

Rose

Google makes life so much easier. I appreciate it. If it is making you dumber, maybe you don't know how to use it or study on your own.

Frank

Re "b" the "college math tutor":

A calculator cannot do anything that the student does not know how to do. It is the student who must correctly tell the calculator which commands to execute, after all. So in reality, a dumb student would be dumb with or without the calculator. A smart student using a calculator would simply do the same math problems faster than he would without one.

Likewise, Google does not do anything other than execute search algorithms on the search terms you enter. Google does not make you dumber. A dumb user who enters dumb search terms will get dumb results. A smart user who gives thought before entering search terms will find a wealth of information.

Terrie

Even granting for the sake of argument that using Google doesn't cultivate the same disciplines as older methods of research and study, I submit that it requires us to develop a new, adaptive skill: the ability to filter and evaluate the validity of vast amounts of information. I have become more adept at assessing the credibility of a source, something I didn't concern myself with as much when I trusted simply to the fact that "I read it in a book."

Fahim Saya

Disagree. Certainly it boils down to the fact that you prefer working hard and not smart. It's like making a car and starting from the point of inventing the wheel. For example, 2+2=4 is much better quicker than 1+1+1+1= 4. I would say having information at your finger tips just increases your accessibility to the right bit of information, allowing you to spend more time to build more efficiently and effectively--and certainly spend more time on creativity, which is definitely the prime medium in present and future times for survival, growth, and stability.

Pamela

I like Google. When I search for things on Google, a million Web sites come up, and I look through them all.

But then again, this all depends on the person. If you're lazy, you'd skim through the headings. If you're actually interested in the topic, you'd go further on. I agree that Google is a tool, and the user just needs to know how to use it and not abuse it.

By the way, at my school, we're allowed calculators, but not graphing calculators. But in my calculus class, we're not allowed to use calculators. We must rely on our fingers then.

Mike

Google is simply a tool to find information. There is both invalid and biased information along with valid information within almost all information sources. It is up to the researcher to decipher what is valid and what isn't. Overall, I'd say Google has made us much more intelligent across various topics because of its efficiency. How many times have you watched on TV, listened to the radio, read, heard, or seen some random bit of information only to immediately "Google" it? How often did you do this six to nine years ago? Although it does not make you an expert on the topic, Google allows us to get a surface-level understanding of a wide variety of topics. I'd say that definitely makes us sharper overall.

Chitra

I agree with Jack McD. Google is just an extended information repository. It just points to the information you are seeking, and while doing so, it lets you know the context in which the information was used. The relevance, authenticity, and analysis are open for interpretation. All the thinking, processing, and analyzing is actually done by you. So, what does it matter how you get the information?

Google lets you know more and know fast--if this doesn’t make you smarter, what does?

Rahul Malik

Yes, Google is making you dumber to some extent, but then if there is no Google, there will be another in the form of Google, and you will always have some kind of substitute in this fast-changing world of information.

A day will come when people will rely on Google for all kinds of help and when the world will be Googling around. That will be very bad for mankind as then Google will dictate its own rules. So we must to some extent restrict Google to stop Googling with our lives so much that we Google 24 hours.

Edge

Google has simply made it easier to get past that first stage--the research stage. The work of assimilating the information, deciphering its meaning, reaching conclusions, and using the information to innovate still remains to do.

I for one appreciate having less of that work as it is the drudge work.

JT-quest

Google changes the speed of accessing information and therefore the opportunity that one takes to look up that information. Other search engines do this as well, so it's not unique to Google. I guess the question here is whether or not using search engines changes in a positive way how we research or find information. It is indeed a huge positive bonus, and at least for awhile I think it's also advantageous to learn the index and lookup systems at libraries for referencing hard-copy books and periodicals. Seems so 20th century, doesn't it?

Bernard

I think Google is a great resource for all users, but it does make us intellectually lazy. It also encourages us to appropriate others' ideas as our own as well digest false information as fact. This is the danger of Google and the net as a whole.

As we readily consume information, we all run the risk of taking it for truth. I don't think books and interpersonal experiences can ever be replaced by the Internet, though. We must just take the onus upon ourselves and make sure that we stay educated by using multiple forums in our ever-growing quest for information.

anuj

I am an avid Google user. In fact, it is my homepage. I strongly believe that Google is doing us all a great favor in terms of providing speedier access to information. Nowadays, with the lifestyle that we are leading, no one has enough time to go to the library and slog through volumes of printed material to find information. In fact, that would be a dumb thing to do when all the information is just clicks away on Google.

Without such powerful search engines, one can be easily overwhelmed while trying to find relevant information over the Web. Based on my personal experience, I can say that you can find what you are looking for in the first 20 Web links that Google pops out for any search (given you are using the right search words).

The Internet has made possible a new information era. Never before have people living in remote places of the world had access to virtually infinite information. You can search for any topic--recipes, how to fix your car, medical advice, and anything else that you could possibly think of. And the one tool that makes all this information easier and quicker to access is Google. For every thought/idea/question that pops up in you head, would you rather make a dash for the library catalog or do a quick search on Google? I think the choice is pretty clear.

Shailesh Naik

1) Google is now part of our world whether it makes us intelligent or not.

2) Resources, whether gold, plutonium, or information, give options for people to use for their betterment or destruction--the choice is ours.

3) So let's debate how to use Google and not on Google being good or bad.

pkb

I don't think Google is making us dumber; it depends on user and how the information is interpreted. Internet users need to learn that Google is just another medium of research. It should not be the only medium for getting your information. Yes, it has given people information about infinite topics at their fingertips. So, always do your due diligence before relying on information you find on the Internet. Also, continue to use the other media as Google may not have what you are looking for. Don’t think just because it’s not on Google, it doesn't exist.

Amy Jane

I wonder what you think of online learning. Also, you don't think that the Internet is a good learning tool in itself? Sure, books are still the best learning tools, but the Internet offers instant information, and that always leads to wanting more information from other media. At least it does for me, anyway.

Esta

Google, like any other part of the net, is either a tool to use, or not.
The "smart" is in the person doing the searching, not the tool being used.

With the right engine query, I can find almost anything I want to know. It's like having the largest library in the world at my fingertips. Can I trust all of it? No, but the same can be said for books. Just because a thing is in print does not meant it's a fact. Printed material can have just as much in errors as any Web-based information.

A smart person weighs all the information and makes choices based on that. So the net is just one more source, and it's a self controlled source--you control what you seek and when, without having to wade through tons of paper to find it. Further, Web news is often in real time, long before the information makes it to a book.

chris

Dumb will be dumb, with or without Google.

But easy always attracts the dumb and those who wish to eliminate thinking, and it is those people who seem to take center stage today, in the media and in culture.

Balaji Viswanathan

Just as we skipped our regular walks and stair-climbing by using cars and elevators and hence grapple with obesity, we might soon grapple with informational obesity. This will be a condition of people who surf and read too much information they cannot assimilate through proper thinking. And just as a useful item called fat becomes a nuisance when not used or assimilated, Google information will create zombies who seem to read too much but can't think and assimilate information.

I suggest a Google diet, where we limit Google use to 0 to 15 times a day and take long "walks" over books, lectures, and other conventional sources of information.

Alec

"Owsh
May 31, 2007 12:57 PM
I won't even read your article, because your subtitle says enough..."

Perhaps this is a perfect example of how avid Googlers have little patience for digesting information. But I wouldn't worry too much--there are plenty of people in the younger generations who still read books and study material in depth. And anyone who actually knows about Christian IV and the Round Tower of Copenhagen probably had to hear about it in a class or read it in a book to begin with. I can't recall the last time Renaissance navies came up in any of my casual conversations.

Shruti

It all depends on how you use it. If you depend on only Google to prepare for your exam, you will most certainly not fare well on the exam. There are hundreds of hits if you look for a particular topic, but sometimes the information that you get from reading those Web sites is not consistent. On the other hand, if you grab a book and if the book says so, then you have more faith in that material than what you find on the Web.

But for quick answers to questions, Google search is definitely a blessing.
I personally am a big fan of this search engine and use it almost every day both at work and at home.

My conclusion is that online material should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Bill Jacobs

It's the Web you're talking about. Google is just a tool that makes the info easy to find. Without a search engine, it would be like thumbing through a reference book with no table of contents or index, or maybe a non-alphabetical encyclopedia.

Guruprasad

Google is helping advertisers get noticed on their Web site. This is the basic job. Just think of it as a medium to show advertisements.

Rubbal Datta

It is ridiculous to even use the word "dumb" in context to Google. The way Google has transformed search--or let me put it in a better context for the uninitiated--the way Google has transformed knowledge-sharing--is a thing to feel proud of. I am not a canvasser for Google, but I feel that to suggest Google is meaningless as this is an insult to the phenomenon called Google.

Keep up the good work, guys, and don't worry about critics. Back in India there is a saying: "When elephants walk, dogs bark. "

jacob@MadMoneyStocks.com

Saying Google makes you dumb is like saying a library with a 1,000 books is worse than one with only 1 book. How many sites you visit and how much time you spend on each is totally up to you--not Larry Page or Sergey Brin. A well-designed site can serve someone looking for quick info as well as those needing details. Chris said it best: Dumb will be dumb with or without Google.

Elias Kai

Hi Jakob,

I think it all has to do with the information a seeker is looking for and each seeker's profile.

Pros: Many people find solutions using Google, many others do some competitive analysis using Google, and a lot of other users make money and earn their living indirectly or directly from Google.

Cons: Probably most users stick to one kind or one cluster of information when they search, so perhaps Google should and will be related to social search behavior in order to give its users enrichment and a better education.

After all, any kind of information can be diluted or comprehended, faster or slower, depending on its distribution and presentation level.

Elias Kai
PhD, Search Behavior, Usability, Trust

Ksawery M Szymura

Computers only do the things you tell them to do.

B.

This is a timely article for me, since I recently realized I spend too much time trying to find useful information on the Internet. Sure, little factoids have become easy, but really "learning" a topic like you will when you work/talk/study with folks who really know it? Not a chance.

Mostly, the Internet has become a place to look up data and opinions (like this one) and share thoughts with like-interested individuals. Unfortunately, it has yet to provide much in the way of old-fashioned, seat-of-the-pants learning. In fact, it can really suck the air out of a day if you're not careful.

A

Evaluating the quality of information is what makes humans intelligent, and while Google doesn't "make us dumber," it does allow for dumb thinking to become more prevalent. I teach information literacy in a medical school. Try Googling "MMR vaccine." Fortunately, from my location, the majority of hits on the first page (hardly anyone goes past the first page) are legitimate. However, while 99.99% of the medical community is in consensus on the safety of MMR, there are still enough nut bars out there posting an alternate view of reality. Google's page-rank assumes that group-thinking is intelligent. Just because a large percentage of the world thinks JFK's death was staged or aliens landed in Roswell, doesn't make it true. In my community, 27% of the population lacks a high school education. I don't feel comfortable having life-altering decisions being made by group consensus. While Google can be used to find facts (only about 40% of the Internet is indexed by Google anyway), intelligence is what interprets the facts from the crap.

Jesse

Why not simply use the tool or research method that best fits the issue at hand? As a reference librarian, I can confidently state that some topics are best addressed with in-depth book research, while others yield better results using online resources (and not just Google). For important research questions, I would utilize both.

In addition, I have found that 99% of the folks out there simply don't know how to use Google effectively and efficiently.
--Jesse

aditya malik

Sharing knowledge is no sin. Why should things be kept hidden? Let the ray of sun come in to let everybody read.

Jane

Answer this question for me: If Jane has a spell-checker embedded into her Microsoft Word, is she being taught to be better speller?

Google is a smart search engine. It has not made Jane a smarter searcher. For Google to make her a smarter searcher, Google ought to be teaching her something about her lazy search habits, and help her become more deliberate about where she is going when she's looking for something. At the moment that is all invisible. She trusts that Google has done a good job for her and rarely bothers to go past the first page of results. Please don't make the assumption that she has learned anything.

I agree with Jesse: Most "folks out there simply don't know how to use Google effectively and efficiently."

Pat Gracey

I don't think Google is making anyone dumber, but I do think it makes it easier to get away with being dumb.

Thanks to the Internet, intelligent people can share ideas faster and more widely than ever before. It also means they'll be sharing ideas with more idiots and quacks than ever before. These tools were designed to facilitate information sharing, not quality control.

By all means, use Google. It's great, but people who think they can do away with everything else for their information needs are in need of better information.

BD

Nike made me slower.

When I was barefoot, I had to work harder to run fast, but as running is easier in my new running shoes, I am now slower.

Jared

Defend Google! Defend Google!

Relax. Nielsen is not bagging on Google. He is not attacking you for using Google. I'm sure he likes Google search as much as any of us. Google Search seems to like him. He is the third hit on the search term "Nielsen," which another Google search plus a few clicks reveals to be one of the 1,000 most common surnames in the U.S. Which means his opinion is probably highly regarded. Which means you might read his point and try to learn something from it. If you had Googled his name, you would have learned a wealth of information on his Web site. You would have learned that he has been heavily involved in making the Internet a better place for all of us, a tireless defender of the regular user. Nielsen is no dummy. Google and his Web site are my proof.

True, because he is an expert doesn't mean that he is automatically right, but he has accomplished a lot and is an articulate, thoughtful individual. Few addressed his point about the navies of Europe. To emphasize his point, many of those who left comments here surfed into this page after reading the headline somewhere, skimmed a few paragraphs to see that he did really mean exactly that (how can anyone believe Google makes people dumber. I'm not reading this trash!), ignored his main point (deeper knowledge from additional sources besides Google and actually reading the article), and railed on him for expressing an interesting opinion that might be cause for reflection. Is he right? He does give Google credit for quickly looking up a small piece of information, a fact, a date, encyclopedia information, information a robot could give you. His point is that there are other types of deeper learning that are not going on.

Balaji, that was a beautiful metaphor. I mean, with microwaves and automobiles and elevators, think of all the time we save! We (should) have tons more time, arguably tons more time to exercise! Why are we (Americans) more obese than ever?

I love Google and live by it. But how can you use Google to search for something you know nothing about, you have never heard of? Let's say I'm programming in C++, and I'm having a headache with concurrency and multi-threading. How is Google supposed to tell me what I really need to know: e.g., that Haskell (and purely functional programming) and STM (Shared Transactional Memory) could perhaps completely eliminate that headache?

Maybe the heading should not have said, "Google Is Making You Dumber" but "Google Is Keeping You Dumber?" Perhaps what Google does is keep people thinking that they are smarter than they are: I can just look it up on Google in a split second and be an expert on Renaissance navies. But what it can't do is make you care.

P.S., Bubba: IQ cannot by definition increase since by definition the average IQ is 100. Google "intelligence quotient" to learn more about it. And no, Google search is not allowed on IQ tests, so this would not have helped you. (But IQ tests don't measure knowledge of facts like "the definition of IQ," but you probably knew that, since you could just Google that too.) I do agree with Bubba if he meant that we may be collectively getting closer to the mean KQ--knowledge quotient. (By definition, can Google raise the average knowledge quotient?)

U1

Pro. It is so dumb of people to think that Google helps anyone get any focused info. It is just a machine to generate more combinatorial contexts to get more ad opportunities. So some dumb people who have a lot of time (obviously no work) look at 1 million links as Pamela writes here, and get more distracted willingly. My experience is that 99% of time, I loose time rather than get something substantial about what I am searching for. I found there are other more meaning ways to get the info better. They are focus groups, focused news services, and to some extent, professional blogs.

Moreover, there is another danger--risking privacy as these guys track our search words. But as the world's majority is mediocre, this dumb thing will flourish until we change the balance.

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