12 May 2017

Don't let Google help you get dumber

I wrote a paper [pdf] about 10 years ago that discussed the "negative, second-order effect" of using Google to find anything from music tracks to teaching presentations. My observation is that Google's ease of use (a good thing, i.e., "a positive, first-order effect") makes it easier for us to be lazy in terms of researching, mastering ideas or working to present them.

I see many signs of this effect around me, i.e., when spell-checkers fix our typing, translators give us some but not all of the meaning, or when students cite others' ideas based on a googled snippet, rather than the memory from reading broadly or for comprehension (the ctrl+F problem). These stages are merely the most recent in an evolution that began thousands of years ago, when homo sapiens were able to share collective knowledge to overcome the larger-brained (smarter) homo neanderthalensis, which had weaker social organization.

Russ Roberts and Tyler Cowen discuss these ideas -- among others -- in this podcast on Cowen's book, The Complacent Class (start around 40 minutes in). I recommend that you listen to the podcast if you want to think differently about how you might retain some knowledge in a world where bots and automation are increasingly dominant.

Bottom Line: It's nice to benefit from "collective knowledge" but be careful when that knowledge is controlled by corporations.