Is Google making us think too superficially?

Google evolved. But is it dragging us with it?

I’ll start with yet another question: when was the last time you performed a web search without using Google? If you are a civilian (as in not working in the tech industry, not a college student or researcher, etc.), chances are you can’t even separate web search from the idea of Google. Or the web, period.

It doesn’t surprise that most of us feel so. Google is a master in giving us the impression that they contain everything: if you just google it, you’ll find enough results to make you bored, and feeling like you already read a lot about something. But the reality of the web — with its deep and dark bits — is hundreds of times larger than the tip of the iceberg Google offers you. I’m not even talking about the Hidden Wiki (but if you are hopelessly curious about those, Cole Stryker’s book Hacking the Future is a great start), and all of those things you would probably be in trouble for accessing. I’m talking about an amazing portion of legal, useful information that cannot be indexed with the tools Google uses to perform the search.

I heard our LCC course librarian explaining this with a wonderful metaphor (thank you, Leila!): Google can be imagined as a sort of spider crawling the surfaces of the web. The reach of their search is the same as what the spider can touch with it’s long, elegant paws: pages that have their discoverability enhanced by SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) tools, results that match the best with your keywords, major mentions. Or, in other words: information meant to be seen, web pages someone carefully manipulated to make sure they are visible before others are. Then try to remember: when was the last time you clicked beyond page one? Beyond the first three, four results on page one?

Now here’s my trouble with this. If someone bothers to make themselves visible by using SEO, by carefully tagging and categorising their content, it goes one of two ways: either they have some kind of commercial interest regarding you finding that information (plain English: they are selling themselves, or selling your clicks, or both); or they have some equally important agenda in making that information scream in the first pages (such as newspapers with marked political views and interests, religious groups, only good people, really). Sometimes (a lot of times!) those two reasons go more together than we like to believe: a page may at the same time profit from your clicks and be using their visibility as ideological atom bombs.

Still, we can’t deny the convenience of the amount of information Google condenses for us, even trying to guess what is it that we’re searching for (and giving us hysterical laughs with that, every now and then). They also show us the best way the get where we want to go, if the places we want to visit are open now, how’s the traffic. Or allow us to collaborate with their shareable docs. Etc. etc. We cannot deny our lives are a lot easier since Google became so omnipotent and omnipresent in the web. Even though the part of the web Google can touch is relatively small, it is large enough to give us the feeling we are already seeing a lot… but does that necessarily mean we are more informed? I’m hoping you are nodding in denial right now.

The more we use Google, and Google only, the more we become hostages of the kind of empire they are building around us. It’s in our e-mails, in our maps, in our search, and even completing our sentences before we finish them (who needs romance those days…). I read somewhere, the other day, that one of the realities of product design is to accept that people are lazy. Google is exemplary not only in satisfying our laziness, but since they started, I believe they are making us even lazier. But worse than that: it’s making us shallow.

For those who were born in the years a.G. (after Google), it is hard to use the tool in a critical fashion. As a University tutor, I can tell: the younger the student, the harder it is to explain to them that there is life beyond Google, online or off. Though it can be useful to resort to web search for a quick problem solving — such as finding a reference, or a more general browsing about a topic — it is not ok to forget that the whole of the information you access should not come exclusively from one source — especially, one must remember, when this source is a corporation with heavy financial interest in controlling information.

When we passively accept to take Google’s first page as all we can get about a topic, we are neglecting 5/6 of the web, and I cannot imagine the proportion of “real world” (as in offline) information. The more superficial the information we access, the more superficial our visions, judgments, and knowledge of something will be. In other words: we are feeding an unsustainable system in which our searches are more impatient, less careful, and falling passively into the trap of accessing only information meant to be seen first. And their agenda is not at all to make us smarter or more informed.

The loss of the serifs in the new Google logo, for me, is a mark of that new age in the company’s history. As happened with Uber, Google adopted a new brand that is more honest about who they are, and with what we can expect next. The fonts with serifs are broadly known for transmitting the idea of credibility and authority — this is rooted already on a symbolic level. By losing the serifs, Google presents themselves as a lighter, more web-friendly brand, but they also reveal that the authority and trustworthiness behind the information they are displaying is ambiguous. When the new brand was released last year, a lot of people joked about how it looked like a child drew the letters. But by feeding our laziness, while making us more and more shallow, isn’t Google making exactly that: turning us all into capricious children again?