Cognitive impacts of Google’s info hegemony
Referring to the prior post, the title was meant to provoke and reprieve the Atlantic article thesis. As with many technological aids to cognitive augmentation, the answer is “both” dumber and smarter.
Perhaps we are all still only in the first few years of a new media behavior, and like “boiling frogs” we cannot see the effects on ourselves yet. Surprisingly, there are no in-depth research studies on Google-think. As somone who’s researched and observed information behavior in the search and research domains for over 10 years, I want to consider longitudinal aspects, not just whether Google makes us “feel” smarter or dumber.
I have researchable concerns over the universal casual acceptance of Google’s information hegemony. We are smarter in some ways, for sure – but I have also sensed a rapid dismissal of Carr’s (Atlantic article) thesis, as if it were obvious he’s just making a fuss. There may be ways – ways in which we don’t have easy access to awareness – that continual Google use makes us dumber.
How do we know what behaviors will be obviated by growing up with a ubiquitous search appliance whose evolution of relevancy reflects popular choices? (Over time, anything popular reverts to the mean, which is not exactly “smart.”) PageRank bases relevancy on (among other things) having the highest number (and weighting) of citing pages to the given page. It displays (by default) only 10 items on the results, and overwhelmingly people select the top hit in a search. While Google is powerful, the results display is not as helpful for browsing as – for example – the clustered responses of Clusty, or search enginers like Scirus being used in science research.
It rides our cultural proclivity toward instant gratification – we get a sufficient response VERY quickly, making a compelling argument to rapidly explore the top hit. How often do we pursue the hits on page 3 or further? Do we know what knowledge we are avoiding in our haste? Why do we think the most-referred to pages are the most “relevant” to our real needs? This “instant good enough” may lead us to demand that value of other types of services and supposed knowledge.
Kids may then demand this type of easy, superficial access from their teachers. A quick relevant story: The teacher I probably learned the most from in all my years of formal education was Dave Biers, graduate psychology research methods and stats. Rather than laser print his worksheets clearly, he insisted on using old blurred, photocopied mimeo. The formulas were barely readable – so you HAD to pay attention in class, where everything was explained and scrawled on the board. This made you attend class, and attend in class. If you didn’t understand, you couldn’t act as if you did. Illegibility was a deliberate learning device.
In a 2005 article in Cognition, Technology and Work I reported on a study at Univ of Toronto on information practices in scientific research. I reported on the trend of grad students using Google and PubMed instead of the expensive, dedicated research tools often used more by their faculty, such as SciFinder, Medline, Web of Science. The earlier use of the more “opaque” search interfaces, now being obsoleted, had at one time trained a generation to think about the terms used in the domain of their research.Opacity is helpful when it reveals opportunities for further learning that you would miss if in a hurry.
This may have also enabled serendipity.Discoveries in science often happen by analogy and serendipitous relationships. Google’s ruthlessly immediacy and transparency of the “top” answers bypasses some of these learning and suggestion opportunities. Even Google Scholar hides a lot more than it shows. How do we actually “slow down” the process of info foraging so that we can find patterns in a problem domain and not just assume the top hits are best?
Now consider the McLuhan tetrad model of the replacement of an older media by a newer regime. The tetrad is a model for thinking through trends and impacts of media transformation. It is also a helpful way to map out the impacts of a new media and to make predictions of its future directions.
So using the tetrad on Google we get:
- What does the medium enhance? Information foraging – finding many sufficient, alternative responses to a given question that can be described in simple keywords. Google amplifies our temporal effectiveness – it gives us the ability to respond quickly in time to almost any information need. It enhances our ability to communicate, by giving us access to other people’s points of view for a given topic of interest. It augments our (already-weakened by infoload) memories by allowing us to neglect exact dates, names, references until the point of need.
- What does the medium make obsolete? Published encyclopedias, and many types of indexes. It obviates the memorizing of factual details, which can now be retrieved quickly when needed. (Exact retrieval is not a typical competency of human cognition). It reduces the importance of directories, compiled resources, catalogs, list services, even editorial compilations such as newspapers.
- What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier? Do we know yet? It may return the ability to create context across domains of learning. It may enable multi-dimensional thinking, that was more common in the 18th and 19th centuries than today. Recent re-readings of Emerson and Thoreau have left me astonished at the breadth of lifeworld of authors of that time. They had a Renaissance-person grasp of culture, news, politics, geography, literature, scientific developments, and the intellectual arguments of their time. Our culture lost much of this in the specialized education created to satisfy the demands of industrialization. I have hope that searching may lead to a broader awareness and access to the multitude of meaningful references that can be positioned into waiting dendrites in our pre-understanding of things.
- What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes? Google is flipping into itself. Google has already flipped into the world online library (Print and Books), it has flipped into the world online geosearch (Earth) and navigation (Maps). Images. News. Video. These are not just object types – these are new media with new possibilities. What’s next? Immersive broadband imagery by your preferred channel of perception.
What it does not help us with is version control. I had to rewrite the tetrad from memory after (apparently) clearing the WordPress editor somehow and clicking Save. Then finding the editor empty – why isn’t there yet a Google Undo?