How Google, Wikipedia Have Changed Our Lives — For Better and Worse

    by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
    January 25, 2008

    A lecturer in the U.K. made headlines this month when she banned her students from using Wikipedia and Google for research assignments in her classes. The professor, Dr. Tara Brabazon, said that students “don’t come to university to learn how to Google.” I’m sure they don’t, but I can imagine the fear that the ban struck in the hearts of her students.

    I don’t see how she could possibly enforce her restriction, but the thought of writing a term paper or a thesis without at least some help from the Internet makes me shudder. We’ve become so reliant on electronic information sources that the idea of cracking open an encyclopedia and writing footnotes — gasp — manually rather than cutting and pasting from a website is like asking someone to walk across burning coals.

    But I think the professor has a point. Because of the work I do as a blogger and online marketer, I spend a ridiculous amount of time on the Internet and lately have become concerned that it’s actually changed the way I think — for the worse. While it’s great that I can get instant answers to any question under the sun and read books online for free, I am also feeling unchallenged and reliant on this type of convenience.


    What did I do before Google and Wikipedia? Can I even remember? I’ve tried to hearken back to those dark days, looking at some “before” and “after” scenes from my life — in the areas of knowledge acquisition and daily tasks, what I mostly use the Internet for — and the contrast is striking. Google and Wikipedia have made me impatient and spoiled for instant information gratification, and the enjoyment of leisurely seeking has given way to an appetite for fast finding.

    Knowledge, Then and Now

    Research Then
    I remember as a child sitting in a damp back room in my grandparents’ house poring over encyclopedias, dreaming about faraway places like Spain and becoming fascinated with grade school astronomy. I’d pick a volume off the shelf at random and just read whatever I happened upon, letting serendipity guide me. It was an unstructured and fun way of learning.

    In high school, Encyclopedia Britannica was the go-to source for research, but I often found myself in front of ancient microfiche readers which were not user-friendly. The biggest thorn in my side was the Dewey Decimal System, which to my adolescent mind seemed to have no rhyme or reason. Getting lost in the library when I had homework to turn in was no fun, but it was a great way to find things I wasn’t looking for. Researching meant going through book after book, making copies, highlighting copies and then starting to write. The pre-writing process was so involved that it made me think twice before abandoning the library, lest I leave behind some valuable information. And of course I might run into some friends while at the library, which made the process a bit more fun.


    Research Now
    I haven’t been to the library in about 10 years. I use the Internet for absolutely everything related to research, and in fact, I’d feel totally crippled without it. The speed at which I collect information is so lightning fast that it’s difficult to digest it all. RSS feeds nearly run my life. Daily, I jump at a speed of sound from Google to Wikipedia to Google again for my stories. And since everyone else is working at this speed, it’s hard to slow down and take it all in. One fact leads to another to another and to another.

    There is no organization other than the one Google provides, which makes me nostalgic for the Dewey Decimal System (almost). I don’t touch a single physical tome. If I need to talk to someone, it’s mostly done over email or through a social network like Facebook or Twitter. Every now and then I’ll get to hear someone’s voice, but since everyone is so busy, they prefer electronic communication. It’s a lonely place.

    Learning Then
    Back in college, when I first began studying film, the early years were dedicated to learning less about cameras and lighting and more about the origins of storytelling, classic mythology and philosophy. I remember being in a hermeneutics class and first learning about German philosopher Heidegger. I became fascinated with his ideas and the topic of hermeneutics in general; so much so that in every class I was rapt, hanging on the every word of the professor.

    I passively relied on the classroom experience for information, and found myself inspired by every lesson (though I was more than likely influenced by my professor’s one-sided adoration for the topic). It was a didactic experience based on patient listening and mentoring. After class, I’d head down to the local bookstore to peruse the philosophy section, and leave with a physical copy of Heidegger’s “Being and Time.” While I was there, I might stumble upon a couple other interesting books, discovering other philosophers and theories, expanding my view.

    Learning Now
    If I was a student in class today, my intolerance for waiting — a result of my Internet attention span — might not allow for hearing out the lecture. I might rudely get out my smartphone or iPod Touch and Google the philosopher’s name and just to cut to the chase.

    But assuming I’m smarter than that, I’d listen to the lecture, then go home, Google his name, find a Wikipedia entry on him and start skimming. The way the entry is laid out allows for a lot of jumping to the good parts — for instance a section on controversy. If I were lazy, I might only rely on this one source for forming an opinion about the man. Next thing you know I’d be digging up dirt on a dead German philosopher.


    Heidegger Works on Google

    Next stop is Google, where I can find a copy of Being and Time online for free. But since it’s online, it’s not very comfortable for me to read all 596 pages. Printing it out would be a pain (not to mention not very earth-friendly), so I would end up just skimming through to “the good parts.” Luckily, my professor has likely put his entire lecture up on iTunes U I can check out anything I missed in class.

    Everyday Life, Then and Now

    Daily Tasks Then
    I still can — though barely — remember a time when I used the Yellow Pages for finding businesses to patronize for everyday activities. A good example is finding a pizza place that delivers to my home. In the old days, I’d open up the big yellow book, look under pizza, and simply find the location closest to me. Then I’d pick up the phone, manually dial the number and place my order.

    Daily Tasks Now
    Now, the more “convenient” way is actually a lot more involved, with a 5-step process that includes hints of paranoia. Of course, the new way usually leads to a higher quality experience.

    Here’s the way it normally plays out:

    1. Pick up my smartphone.

    2. Use Google Local Search to find the closest pizzeria that delivers. Look at the star rating (if applicable) and narrow the selection down to pizzerias that have received at least 4 stars from users. Check to make sure the ratings are relevant, because if only a couple of users have rated, the score is probably not reliable.

    3. Go to Yelp.com to quickly check the ratings. If I see a low star rating, the pizzeria is immediately eliminated from the running. If it’s borderline, read a few reviews to see if they sound believable and if I can give the pizzeria the benefit of the doubt.

    4. From the Yelp.com mobile page, click on the phone number and automatically call to place my order.

    5. If I’m feeling especially paranoid, I might check CleanScores to see if the place I’m ordering from has scored well on health inspections.

    This scenario is repeated time and time again in a variety of everyday situations. Before, if I needed a dentist, I’d ask my friends for recommendations. Now I rely on the collective intelligence in Google search results, directory sites (where even dentists become stars) and blog posts.

    Burning Questions Then
    Another scene from the past involves those unanswerable (albeit trivial) questions. Back then, I’d hear a song on the radio and when it ended, wait patiently to hear the title and artist. Almost always I’d hear a commercial, not the name of the song. This scenario would repeat itself time and time again, until the song was no longer popular enough to get much play on the radio. So the answer to the burning question remains a mystery.

    Before the Internet, I might ask my friends if they knew what the song was called. From a conversation, we’d talk about the artist, my friend’s opinion of his or her music, any other albums they’d put out. A conversation is built around a shared question or interest. But other times I’d just be stuck with that burning question.


    Burning Questions Now
    Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, nothing’s a mystery anymore. I remember there was a song from my childhood with a very distinct instrumental bridge that for the life of me I could never name. The musician also evaded me. This was one of those questions that while unimportant, seemed to come up time and time again. What was that song?

    Then, flipping through radio stations in a car, I heard a snippet. I contemplated calling the radio station to end the wondering. But I was able to pick up a couple of lyrics, and when I got home I put the question out to Google (“you’re crying, you’re crying now”). In a second I had the answer I’d been searching for: Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. With 463 Google results and a thorough Wikipedia entry, I had all the information I could possibly want to know about the mystery song.

    Dr. Brabazon, the professor, would likely flunk the Internet-age me. I humbly admit that while I love reading books — my last real physical media addiction — after so many years of Internet reliance and a very demanding schedule, I am impaired without Google, Wikipedia and the countless other tools and sites I use to make my life easier.

    And that’s the trade-off: What you gain in speed of delivery you often lose in quality of information, not to mention the most intangible benefit of the way we used to get information: seeking it out slowly, wondering, theorizing, discovering and feeling fulfilled in learning. I miss that.

    Brabazon recently gave a talk called Google Is White Bread For The Mind, and I’m wondering if her summation of the Internet’s effects on our brain might be true. We all know what white bread is: a broken down, artificially enriched version of something that was previously good for you. But there are two reasons why we love it: It’s been spoon-fed to us via marketing and it’s just so good. Kind of like Google, and they are both hard habits to break.

    What do you think? Does the Internet and tools like Google and Wikipedia make life simpler or are they just making us lazier? What online tools could you not live without? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

    Library image via xjyxjy on Flickr

    Tagged: google modern life wikipedia

    12 responses to “How Google, Wikipedia Have Changed Our Lives — For Better and Worse”

    1. Mister Poo says:

      Yes. The speed of info is the enemy of depth?

      But one thing remains true from Heidegger’s day until now: we all poo.

      The internets cannot change this.

      From the lowest beggar in India right up to the Queen of England – we all poo – and as life becomes more digitised, we will revel in this more times.

    2. cee says:

      I think it’s fine for students to use Google and Wikipedia as starting points for their research. However, they should not site either as a source in their bibliography.

    3. Richard says:

      I dunno, I detect some serious nostalgia creeping into your analysis of ‘now’ and ‘then’.

      Certainly we can agree that there are indeed trade-offs, but I’m not sure that this is anything new; there were trade-offs ‘then’, too. The libraries of ‘then’ had limited collections and often the book that you really wanted was checked out. The phone directories of ‘then’ could give you a list of the local pizzerias, but they couldn’t tell you which one was good. The internet is no panacea, but at the same time I think that there is a tendency of late to overlook some of its most significant benefits.

    4. Jo says:

      Really interesting post.

      Just last year I finished a two-year graduate program in library science in the US. Reference class rule #1: Find the answer to your question in an authoritative print source. Rule #2: If you cannot find what you are looking for in a print source, then try the Internet, as it may point you in the right direction. Use with caution.

      My survival in that class hinged on asking myself this question: “If the Internet crashed, what would I do?”

      Having now gone into the professional world, I can understand the value of that class. I am now employed in a small, specialized court library that has very few print titles, no subscriptions to electronic databases, but access to the Internet. I also now work in my homeland, a so-called third world country, where everything just cannot be found on the Internet.

      My best tool is the telephone and the yellow pages. My most reliable source of information: fellow librarians and other civil servants.

    5. darko156 says:

      This might be useful as a link to this great post:
      Google generation is myth

    6. Richard,

      You may be right in detecting nostalgia. That’s probably because when you’re as entrenched in the online world as I am, the grass can look greener (albeit temporarily) on the other side, and there’s even a tendency to romanticize “the way it was”. But if you look at the bulk of my posts here at MediaShift, I think you’ll see that I sing the Internet’s praises more than sulk about what it doesn’t do for me. While I do think we’ve lost something significant in this new way of information gathering — the trade-offs I mention — I wouldn’t go back.

      A few blogs have linked to this post speculating that I agree with the idea of banning Google or am somehow against using the Internet for research. I absolutely am not. Indeed, as I state in the post, I wouldn’t be able to do my job without Internet research, both because I write about the Internet and because I rely on it for getting information for my stories.


      Those are interesting rules of thumb. Even though they would be impossible for me to follow myself in my daily work, I can appreciate the spirit of ingenuity and the fact that you are relying on “traditional” tools in the digital age.

      Thanks for your comments!

    7. Will says:

      I skimmed through reading only the ‘now’ sections and ignoring the ‘then’ sections.
      I also haven’t read any of the comments (yet).
      I do everything you do, more or less.
      My bookmark file is 5.7MB. Actually there are 3 bookmark files, all 5+MB, not sure why.
      My RSS feeds are fat and never ending.

      I feel your pain, I empathize.
      It is a 2 edged sword, I’ve gotten a lot of good out of this, and I’m sure you have too.
      It would be good to find some ways to correct for the negatives. Maybe some new cultural conventions, some changes in our lifestyles.

      In the spirit of this post, I will now go back and read the whole thing – thus having saved no time.


    8. Dr. Brabazon might be right for wanting students to grasp traditional methods. Notwithstanding the university must prepare us for the real world. I always use the internet as a starting point in research but it is rarely sufficient to complete any depth. In conclusion the good professor should have nothing to worry about.

    9. Internet makes life richer. Not Google, not Wikipedia but the connection between past and future. Find the balance between on and off and you will find yourself.

    10. Soon for certain information THEN and NOW question will not be relevant. Volume of information available in non-print format (i.e. available only in electronic format)will be more than what we get in printed format. In this changed environment users will not have a choice than to use tools available on the Net to find this information.

      The fundamental issue – converting information to knowledge and developing a wisdom to address real world challenges – doesn’t get resolve despite our increased access to collective intelligence and speed at which we can access global information.

      How we access information, format in which we create and disseminate, depends mostly on technological resources available. Learning includes developing critical faculties to differentiate signals from noise. This remained true then and now. One needs to do it all the time. Though Google and Wikipedia has changed our interaction with information I’m not sure that is enough to make us wise and knowledgeable.

    11. NIcole says:

      I linked your post to my blog.
      Did you read the Study of CIBER London about google generation?
      Very interesting

    12. Mickey says:

      I, too, have fond memories of browsing libraries and believe that the multi-sensory experience of learning enhanced an early understanding of information types. However, I also believe that academics, writers, etc. are their own breed of people, and assessing the non-academic approach to consuming information by our standards is like judging a pick-up game by NBA rules. Students only little motivated by a particular topic have always been shallow researchers — print encyclopedias were not a better source of information than Wikipedia, as they represented a single viewpoint of the most general information in a field. From a learning standpoint, that isn’t more accurate than collaborative, open-source publication.

      I began using the Internet in the late 90s, along with everyone else. Now, I cannot imagine academic life — perhaps even my intellectual life — without it. Since I am a lecturer teaching scientific writing in several different disciplines, the internet gives me instant access to everything from anthropology to geology to neuroscience and zoology, a level of stimulation so satisfying that caffeine cannot compete! Academic share sites such as CiteULike provide instant access to other people’s research collections and can be a great way to kick off a research project when a new search engine proves ornery. And I cannot imagine writing without the help of a program like RefWorks.

      Nor can I imagine not having books. My children love books right along with their Leapsters. They don’t confuse the two mediums, and since snuggling with mom and dad only happens over print, I don’t see where they value electronics more…at least not yet!

      Finally, I am not convinced that the so-called “deep thinking” deficits professors bemoan were ever a part of the average student’s goals. Nor are they necessarily a part of many adult lives — whether good or bad, lots of work doesn’t require deep thinking whereas many jobs benefit tremendously from fast access and “lateral” thinking. A nurse who needs drug interactions pronto is helped by pocket-sized e-access to a continuously-updating resource rather than a bulky print book in a distant office. Some of the frenzied outcry against shallow use of electronic information reminds me of the same problems elite classes had with early literacy — oh my, what will we do when the masses can think like us? But the “masses” don’t do that — we all choose to think and interact with information according to our own needs and interests. We all have to learn the standards of evaluation common to our fields, jobs, and communities.

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