Possibly Uninteresting, But Never Brainless: Not Allowing Google to Make us Stupid

Nowadays, Google is everywhere. The term ‘to google’, is an actual dictionary entry, meaning “search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google.”

Trust me, I Googled it.

Every piece of information that a person may be interested in can be accessed by the omniscient and omnipotent tool known as Google. Long gone are the days of textbook research, digging deep in the dusty archives for hours upon hours, stumbling upon hidden gems and finding unexpected leads. We now have the universe of research in our pockets, answers in milliseconds and no need to become stuck too far into anything we do. People all over the world are continually using the Internet and Google for more of their tasks and relying on traditional methods less. With functions of searching, tracking calendars, keeping notes, and more, Google has provided us with tools to organize our lives and outsource all of these responsibilities in one place.

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There are well-founded fears that having such a powerful tool at our disposal can be dangerous. The belief is that if we rely this heavily on Google, we will stop using our own brains and become nothing more than a mass of cells, projecting life into a virtual, digital world. Memory and recollection will no longer be required, as everything can be ‘googled’. People will lose the competitive advantage of being knowledgeable, and automation will equalize everything. Information is a commodity; one that almost everyone can access. Google also encourages a fast-paced use of the internet, which means that concentration decreases and distraction increases. There is less room for deep thought, as we are subject to a progressively fast world. Additionally, Google has an almost complete monopoly on search advertising and therefore heavily controls what we see. With someone else managing our exposures, we are giving away our most precious possessions - our minds and persuasions.

The question is not really ‘Is Google making us stupid?’, but rather we should be asking ‘Is Google making us obsolete?’ Although there is a risk of losing oneself to Google, I believe that we, as humans, have traits that machines can never fully possess. It is our job, therefore, to utilize Google and the tools that they have provided us with to maximize our own human strengths and abilities.

It is our responsibility not to let Google make us stupid or brainless.

Instead, we must combine the strengths together by taking advantage of the time and age we live in and the machines we have at our disposal while maintaining ownership of our minds to create something that hasn’t been feasible until now. The strength of Google is the mass of information present that no one human can possess. What they have done is they have opened the opportunity for anyone to access and acquire that knowledge. They have expanded the individual’s mind to include the mind of the entire internet. While this might sounds like a giant equalizer to some, a way of removing the edge that being knowledgeable gives, I view this phenomenon as an equal opportunity for all. It gives anyone the chance to become a real expert in a certain field, and to take advantage of that ability. People can employ Google for the purpose of becoming a maven in a specific industry as well as exploring outside of it.

Back in the days, before Google, our brain was the most valuable treasure. Nicholas Carr, in ‘Is Google Making us Stupid?’ fears that this is no longer so. The “assumption that we’d all ‘be better off’ if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling.” His main fear is that we will succumb to the belief that the “human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.” The simple truth is that memorization is no longer required and recollection is slowly becoming an ancient artform. With the powers of Google’s search tool, remembering information is becoming a relic, and with that, a new mindset is forming. The tricks and mnemonic devices we all used to use to memorize our grocery list or the stages of mitosis are tools that are slowly being weaned out of society. ‘Why memorize when you’ll never remember everything and you can just Google it?’ is the attitude of today’s younger generations. “Intelligence”, Carr writes, “is the output of a mechanical process.”

When paper agendas were used to keep track of appointments and to-do lists, there was an element of memory and awareness involved that no longer exists in the age of notifications. There is no longer a need to keep an eye on the watch or make a conscious connection between an event and the time. Now, a notification bings and we go. Remembering birthdays is a thing of the past as well. That warm feeling we had when someone called to wish a happy birthday is somehow gone as well. We’re no longer touched by an impersonal message of someone who was notified that it’s your birthday.

It’s because of all of these things that many people fear that our collective minds are being liquified by Google, the area of the brain responsible for memory will be unneeded. We will outsource all forms of recollection and then what will become of mankind? Will we become an army of automatons, marching to beat of our phones’ notifications? A society of uninteresting “pancake people”.

Not only is it the lack of memory and recollection that we risk losing, but our ability to concentrate too. Carr mentions this in his article as well and claims that “it’s in [Google’s] economic interest to drive us to distraction… The faster we surf across the Web — the more links we click and pages we view — the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements”. We are no longer accustomed to having quiet space in our mind for real, deep thought. He fears that people are busy and distracted, that the act of contemplation required to “make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas” has all but disappeared.

Google now has the ability to “shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” Carr writes. The internet and the speed with which life is going, is moving faster than the human mind is capable of. This brings us to a society of distracted, preoccupied multi-taskers. One screen is no longer enough, people need a computer screen, a phone screen and a tablet — all displaying different things. Carr, and others are concerned that our minds are fractured and no longer able to hone in on anything of importance for longer than several seconds. Our minds are foggy, the sharpness has gone.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, in ‘ The Googlization of Everything’ adds another element to the list of why Google might be making us stupid. One of Google’s objectives is to provide users with the content they want to see. Therefore, they take your search queries and patterns and show you more of what you’re interested in. If you search for ‘Hotel in Spain’, Google’s algorithms will understand that you are planning a Spanish vacation and start providing you with advertisements and content regarding that topic. You will no longer be exposed to other material that might interest you, it will mostly be centered around this field and you will begin to see hotels in Spain, excursions, maybe flights to neighboring countries. Google thereby narrows your horizon, placing you in an endless loop where “search results are more customized, you are less likely to stumble on the unexpected, the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the uncomfortable. Your Web search experience will reinforce whatever affiliations, interests, opinions, and biases you already possess,” as Vaidhyanathan explains. Imagination no longer has the freedom to roam wild, unlimited. You are now restrained to what the Google algorithms wants you to see.

These fears are well founded. However, the truth is that Google is not going anywhere. It has a stronghold on the world and the trends that have begun will most likely continue. Therefore, it’s our role as the human race to be cognizant of this development and develop with it. This means we will be forced to rebrand what is ‘smart and stupid’. Google is not making us stupid, it’s making us rethink about the ways we use our minds.

Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba, discussed this point at the World Economic Forum in Davos this past January. He said, “Education is a big challenge now. If we do not change the way we teach, thirty years later will be trouble. Because the way we teach, the things we teach our kids [is like in] the past 200 years, it’s knowledge-based. And we cannot teach our kids to compete with [a] machine who is smarter. We have to teach something unique, that a machine can never catch up with us. This way, thirty years later, our kids have the chance…” What differentiates us as humans and what is vital to hold onto, he says, is “value, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others. These are the soft part[s], the knowledge will not teach you that… We should teach our kids sports, entertainment, music, painting, art, to make sure that humans [are] different… from machines.” This is the challenge of the modern day — maintaining the human touch in a digital world. We have the chance to remain ‘smart’ if we continue being judicious about it.

When all of the basics are outsourced to Google, there is space, time and energy available to be used in a different way. The brain power once used for memorization is now freed up for creativity and innovation. So although human recollection is no longer needed, the human mind is still required. Vaidhyanathan explained that Google gives people the opportunity to access “millions of documents heretofore inaccessible[. However,] it does nothing to teach them how to use the information they discover or even to distinguish between true or false, dependable or sketchy, polemical or analytical.” The human touch is still crucial for “critical literacy.” Carr feared that people will no longer be able to make inferences, connection or conclusions and will rely blindly on what Google says. This is an overstatement of the powers of Google. For example, although there is a possibility people take the word of the internet to be the whole truth, this is most certainly not recommended. It’s important to retain a human element of logic and fact-checking before accepting something as true.

Many tasks that previously characterized ‘smart’ are being taken over by Google, and one can claim that this inherently makes us ‘stupid’. However, I would like to claim that ‘smart’ must now mean something else. A sense of humor, a sense of compassion, an ability to interpret and analyze, the ability to create, innovate, and understand is the barometer of ‘smart’. In fact, the Hebrew language has three separate words for the concept of knowledge — ‘chochma, bina, and da’at,’ translated as wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. The famous medieval Bible commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki explains the difference between these three phrases. He writes in his Bible commentary (Exodus 31:3), “Wisdom — what a person hears from others and learns. Understanding — with his intellect he understands other things based on what he learned. Knowledge — The Holy spirit.” The first level of knowledge is the basic information that people can hear and learn. This might be the level of knowledge that Google is taking away from the human mind. The next two levels, however, can not be replaced. On the other hand, human intellect, specifically, is required for understanding other things from what was learned, having opinions, making inferences, and so on. The third level is the spiritual one- machines will never be as wholesome as humans. There will always be something lacking.

In his article, Carr mentioned the fear that deep concentration has become a thing of the past, as people are more distracted than ever. Multi-tasking is the status quo, simultaneous conversation and phone usage are the norm, and multiple screens are the usual. Vaidhyanathan touches on this topic in his book, ‘The Googlization of Everything.’ He quotes Jamais Cascio, “Cascio posits that the noisiness of our digital, connected lives actually trains us to think better by teach us to discriminate among stimuli. We may feel distracted and overwhelmed, but that’s just a function of the inadequacy of our filtering methods and technologies.” Meaning, although the past-paced internet is not going to slow down, the way we interact with this digital world will change. The providers of these services will learn how to improve the filters and user experience. Additionally, our brains and social norms will also adapt to these quick types of interactions. So although many people fear this change, others are embracing it.

When utilizing Google, a person enters an endless loop of information, an additional issue that worries Vaidhyanathan. We consume the content that Google provides us with, which limits us to the small window onto the world that they choose to show us. Although this can be concerning, the way to avoid falling into this information vacuum is to become a content provider. By generating content and engaging our powers of creativity, we can step outside of Google’s loop. The problem with this ‘loop’ is the lack of imagination that is incurred, but once the creativity juices start flowing, the loop loses its power and the brain is engaged in a different way.

The main concern that many have brought up is that machines are making us stupid or obsolete, and I just don’t think that is going to happen. People are still required to put the pieces of information together and make individual conclusions. Humans are still required to filter the information and provide the ethical perspective. We are needed for our resourcefulness, our creativity and our innovation. The need for the human brain will never be extinct.

If intelligence and smarts are no longer at risk, the real question then becomes, ‘Are machines making us boring?’ We risk become an uninteresting society if we don’t take matters into our own hands. There are individuals who have allowed Google and the internet to turn them into boring homebound introverts, with little human interaction, few hobbies and no deep interests. As a society we must ensure this doesn’t happen on a grand scale. In order to remain sharp in this technology-numbing age, we must continue to innovate, to produce instead of only consume. We must train ourselves and our children to focus on a different style of learning and place value not only on simple knowledge but the ability to think outside of the box. We must celebrate founders and not only corporates. We must cultivate our Emotional Quotient (E.Q.) and not only our Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.). We must become experts in a field (or two) that excites us, without relying on Google to feed us information. We must continue to utilize all aspects of our brains and remain engaged in the world around us.

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Written by

Aspiring venture capitalist. Studying at the University of St. Gallen. Passionate about Startups, Tech & Innovation. Frequently invited as a keynote speaker.

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