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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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