Monday, September 08, 2008

The Illusion of the All Knowing Google Search Engine

Some months back in April I wrote a few long blogs on my concerns about the issues of our sources of online knowledge. My main concern is that a lot of information found on the internet can be rather trivial, people are cramming their minds with this information, and, thus, become rather trivial in their knowledge. Someone who surfs the web for knowledge may think they are knowledgeable on subjects may turn out to either know little at all or have a bunch of bad information in their mind. With all the websites, blogs, message boards, chat rooms, etc., not too mention all the cable channels and other non-internet things, information has exploded that it is impossible to keep up with everything. The days are long gone where one could read the daily newspaper, possibly watch a few channels of television, and then go on with your day somewhat informed about the world. My conclusion is that we have to find ways to keep things in balance with what is important to us because there is not enough time to read everything. Still, there is a temptation to look for short cuts.

Recently, I received my monthly newsletter from an old friend J.P. Holding of J.P. spends a lot of time in the areas of issues within the scholarly realm of Christianity and the Bible with his emphasis on apologetics. As a sidenote, somewhere on his site is a essay we co-wrote years ago. An essay he recently wrote titled, Does Google Make Uss Stoopid: On Search Engines and Modern Ignorance, comes to some of the same ideas and conclusions that I have felt for quite some time. I have not talked to Holding about these issues, but it does not surprise me since we both encountered some of these issues in the past in dealing with research. He in turn quotes an article recently written by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic Monthly called, Is Google Making Us Stupid? which is a good read too.

Basically, what both Holding and Carr are saying, and what I have said on here in different ways, is that Google and search engines are a good thing, but do not exhaust all knowledge on any subject. Holding writes, "I have used Google to find quotes many times, or to make it easier to locate something. But the error lies in thinking that ALL research is able to be done this way."

Some people may think the internet is reaching the level of omniscience, but we are far from that and it will not happen. The problem is people thinking it is. I mentioned recently when I was talking about the upcoming release of dvd's and that, at the time, I did not have a "link" for what I had learned outside of the internet. Another example is I was once challenged online when I was told, outside of the internet, that a book would be released a year later. Of course, I was asked for a link and the implication was that if I did not have a link then it must not be so. Of course, challenging blind assertions is one thing, but trying to explain that something exists outside ones area of knowledge is another. One last example is something I noticed last month on a message board. Someone was trying to get a book, but could not find it online other than on a few used books sites that were selling it for an overpriced few hundred dollars. He kept complaining that he could not find any copy of it. Then he was told that he could get it from the publisher, but since the publisher did not have it to order online it was troubling to him. I think he actually did order it from the publisher, but felt he was ordering it "blind" which is rather strange to me. Some people, based on the way technology is now, have a hard time understanding that some things exist outside the internet. That is a rather strange statement for me to make, but in some ways the internet is making people mentally challenged and has become a crutch.

The problem both Holding and Carr point out, again me too on here sometimes, is that people are looking for short cuts in research and knowledge. This is understandable because there is only so much time in a day and it is hard to keep up. Holding writes, "For our purposes, the critical point is that accuracy and truth are regularly being sacrificed on the altars of efficiency and the saving of time." I have said in the past that much of the internet, search engines and online dictionaries, are like the fast food approach to information. These tools are good and helpful for a start, but too much reliance on them is not a good thing. What is worse is if one lets these tools do one's thinking for him or her.

I am reminded of one exchange I was reading online regarding an issue in philosophy. The exchange went a few messages. It became apparent that one of the two people, who I will call David, who was arguing back and forth had the upper hand. The next message that showed up from who I will call Jack, who was not doing so well, took a few quoted paragraphs from an online essay written by another person. All Jack had done was do a quick search and found a response that supported his position. I was not convinced that Jack had any real grasp of what that article said.

So, again, Google and other online tools are really great tools to use, but should only be a part of one's overall quest for knowledge. I have to admit that I do end up doing a lot of skimming of online articles that Holding and Carr refer to as a problem that the internet has created for people. Of course, if the online article is something I really care about I will devour every word. The difference for me is that I can not read books online like I can with a paper book in my hands. I do not look forward to the day where books are replaced by electronic devices. Remember, the ways of the old media and knowledge are still important and are still the basis for the new types of media.