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? Update! The first Debate Room Podcast: Jakob Nielsen and David Alan Grier respond to reader comments about the Google Debate. Hear it now.
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.