Why remember what you can google?

google | ˈɡuːɡl |

verb [with object]

search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google: on Sunday she googled an ex-boyfriend | [no object] : I googled for a cheap hotel/flight deal.

Derivatives
googleable (also googlable) adjective

Origin
1990s: from Google, the proprietary name of the search engine.

‘Why remember what you can google?’ has become something of a catchphrase. Even more so now that many homes have voice assistants like Google Home and Amazon Alexia. It’s common, however, to feel some form of existential angst as if we need to google something then we wonder if we really understand it. Our natural impostor syndrome kicks in and we question if our hard-won knowledge and skills are really our own.

The other side of this is learned helplessness, where googling something might be helpful but we don’t know quite what to google for, or fail to realise that a search engine might be able to help us solve the problem in front of us if just we knew what question to ask. This is a common problem with digital technology, where students learn how to use particular tools to solve particular problems but are unable to generalise these skills. Our schools are quite good at teaching students how, given a question, to construct a query for a search engine. What we’re not helping the students with is understanding when or why they might use a search engine, or digital tools in general.

Both of these these problems – the existential angst and learn helplessness – stem from a misunderstanding of our relationship with technology.

Socrates mistrusted writing as felt that it would make us forgetful, and that learning from a written text would limit our insight and wisdom into a subject as we couldn’t fully interrogate it. What he didn’t realise was that libraries of written texts provide us with access to more diverse points of view and enable us to explore the breadth of a subject, while treating the library as an extension of our memory means that we are limited to what we can refer to in the library rather than what we can remember ourselves.

We can see a similar phenomena with contemporary graduates, who typically have a more sophisticated understanding of the subjects they covered in their formal education than did earlier generations. This is not because they are smarter. Their deeper understanding is a result of them investing more of their time exploring a subject, and less of it in attempting to find and consume the information they need.
Consider a film school student. Our student might be told that some technique Hitchcock used might be of interest to them.

In the seventies this would necessitate a trip to the library-card catalogue, searching for criticism of Hitchcock’s films, flipping through books to determine which might be of interest, reading those that (potentially) are interesting, listing the films that contain good examples of the technique, and then searching the repertory theatres to see which are playing these old films. The entire journey from first mention to the student experimenting with the technique in their own work might take over a year and will require significant effort and devotion.

Compare this learning journey to what a student might do today. The mention by a lecturer on a Friday will result in the student spending a slow Saturday afternoon googling. They’ll work their way from general (and somewhat untrustworthy) sources such as Wikipedia and blog posts as they canvas the topic before consuming relevant criticism, some of which will be peer-reviewed journal and books though others might be in the form of video essays incorporating clips from the movies they mention. Any films of note are added to the queue of the student’s streaming service. Sunday is spent watching the films, and possibly re-watching the scenes where the technique is used. The entire journey – from first suggestion to the student grabbing a camera and editing tool to experiment – might take a weekend.

It’s not surprising the contemporary students emerge from their formal education with a more sophisticated command of their chosen domain: they’ve spent a greater proportion of their time investigating the breadth and depth of domain, rather than struggling to find the sources and references they need to feed their learning.

The existential angst we all feel stems from the fact that we have a different relationship with the new technology than the old. The relationship we have with the written word is different to the one we have with the spoken word. Similarly, the relationship we have with googled knowledge is different to the one we have with remembered knowledge. Learned helpless emerges when we fail to form a productive relationship with the new technology.

To integrate the written word into our work we need to learn how to read and write, a skill. To make our relationship with the written world productive, however, we need to change how we approach the work, changing our attitudes and behaviours to make the most of the capabilities provided by this new technology while minimising the problems. Socrates was right, naively swapping the written word for the spoken would result in forgetfulness and a shallower understanding of the topic. If, however, we also adapt our attitudes and behaviours, forming a productive relationship with the new technology (as our film student has), then then we will have more information at our fingertips and a deeper command of that information.

The skill associated with ‘Why remember what you can google?’ is the ability to construct a search query from a question. Learned helplessness emerges when we don’t know what question to ask, or doesn’t realise that we could ask a question. Knowing when and why to use a search engine is as, if not more, important than knowing how to use a search engine.

To overcome this we need to create a library of questions that we might ask: a catalogue subjects or ideas that we’ve become aware of but don’t ‘know’, and strategies for constructing new questions. We might, for example, invest some time (an attitude) in watching TED talks during lunch time, or read books and attend conferences looking for new ideas (both behaviours). We might ask colleagues for help only to discover that we can construct a query by combining the name of an application with a short description of what we are trying to achieve (“Moodle peer marking”). This library is not a collections of things that we know, it’s a collection we’ve curated of things that we’re aware of and which we might want to learn in the future.

The existential angst we feel, along with learned helplessness, are due to our tendency to view technology as something apart from us, an instrumental tool that we use. This is also why we fear the rise of the robots: if we frame our relationship with technology in terms of agent and instrument, then it’s natural to assume ever smarter tools will become the agent in our relationship, relegating us to the instrument.

Reality is much more complex though, and our relationship with technology is richer than agent and instrument. Our technology is and has always been part of us. If we want to avoid both existential angst and learned helplessness then we need to acknowledge that understanding when and why to use these new technologies, fostering the attitudes and behaviours that enable us to form a productive relationship with them, are as if not more important than simple learning how to use them.


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