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March 3, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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How to How to

We now have the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips. Thanks to Google, you can find out how to do anything. All you need is internet access. Is there a catch? Salient investigates.

No doubt if your neighbour muttered, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” as you requested a fork instead of the customary chopsticks at Oriental Kingdom, you’d think they were a bit of a wanker. Even more so if they felt the need to go on and tell you, “Plato said that.” While in the pre-internet era this may have suggested that your neighbour was well read, in the present day we have to be more skeptical; with random information available at the click of a button, it’s hard to tell whether people really understand the things they say.

The modern reliance on Google as an Insider’s Guide to Life is such that, in 2006, the word ‘google’ transcended its boundaries as a noun and was included in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb. If you still don’t know what a verb is after years of primary school spent learning the various parts of speech, google it.

Google makes learning a democratic process; it presents a level playing field for anyone with uncensored internet access seeking information, without the application of bias based on wealth or social status. Higher education is no longer limited to those with the means to attend large institutions. This is exactly what Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin set out to achieve: “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” While once upon a time individuals educated with particular skill sets could extort the untrained by charging exorbitant rates for their services, Google now provides unwitting first-year flatters with the know-how to unclog hair from their shower drain.

We can all be a handyperson, no matter what our parents taught us. As a consequence, it seems that professionals need to specialise in trickier, or niche, areas in order to ensure continued relevance and employment. With increased levels of education across the board, the chances of mistaking the plumber’s reference to the S-bend as a weird sexual advance is diminished. This can only be a good thing, right?

While it’s one thing to say that information is widely accessible, as the founders intended, it’s another to say that the fruits of Google are properly harvested. Genuine understanding requires more effort than the selection of key words and the click of a button. Appropriate use of search results requires a basic level of understanding upon which to build. WebMD, a website which provides “valuable health information” (its greatest function being diagnosing any symptoms you enter into Google), is ultimately of limited use to uneducated sick people searching for the cause of their nausea. Without ‘proper’ medical education, and equipped with little more than the results of a Google search, it’s difficult to avoid a conclusion of anything milder than cancer or pregnancy.

As per the whole point of university education, you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re told or tested. Without some external provision of expert guidance or instruction from the likes of teachers or lecturers, Google users are left to aimlessly wander the online landscape and drown in a sea of information. We’re likely to misdiagnose ourselves, or drink alcohol with antibiotics because someone on a forum said it was fine three years ago. Sometimes there really is no substitute for years of specialised education and training. If we believed there were, we probably wouldn’t be here now.

Increasingly, it seems, we rely on Google to instruct even the most banal tasks of daily life – the most frequently searched “how to” term is currently “how to tie a tie”. Either ties are the new black, or people are no longer bothered with the art of the Windsor knot – instead turning to YouTube every morning for instructions on how to dress themselves. It no longer seems necessary to remember the procedure of basic activities – the internet provides a communal memory bank for an imagined community of googlers.

So what does this mean for Plato’s claim that necessity is the mother of invention? If Google can tell us how to tie a tie, what’s the point in trying to find a new, easier, or just plain different way of doing things? If creativity in the simplest of exercises diminishes, there’s an argument that our ability to be innovative, technologically and socially, will follow suit. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Leaving the memory of tying ties and making pancakes to Google allows more brain space (technical term) to concentrate on emotional intelligence, innovation, and to focus on aspects of life beyond the scope of a search engine – such as details of social interactions and relationships. Then again, at the rate we’re progressing, perhaps you’ll soon be able to google what your partner was really thinking when they said they were “fine” at breakfast this morning.

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