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I’m sitting in a refurbished cottage in rural Wairarapa. For a secluded getaway spot it’s idyllic: tree-lined valley, rolling hills, friendly farm animals. The perfect place to get a bit of writing done, right? However there’s a catch—no 4G, no 3G, in fact no G of any kind. There’s My Sky, but no internet. How the heck am I supposed to research and write a tech column?
There’s nothing like being disconnected from the grid to make you appreciate how easily we can access information, to be reminded that what we now take for granted was a fanciful dream a few decades ago. I can’t help thinking though; does the internet actually make us smarter, or does an over-reliance on it create a crutch which leads to laziness and complacency? Are we turning from disciplined information hunter-gatherers into overweight cruise-ship tourists happy to stay in arm’s reach of the all-you-can-eat knowledge buffet?
The internet’s impact on reading behaviour was explored by Victoria researchers Val Hooper and Channa Herath in their 2014 study Is Google Making Us Stupid? Findings: concentration, comprehension, and recall rates are all notably lower when information is encountered online (as opposed to in print). Distractions ranging from hyper-link detours to near-constant alerts mean that the way we take information in online is shallow rather than deep. Too often we skim the surface and don’t pause long enough to ponder the big picture and finer details, and don’t allow information to seep into our synapses and stay there.
So on one hand we have quick, easy access to a wider range of information than ever before (excepting when on isolated retreat), but on the other there’s evidence that we don’t always understand, recall, or decipher text as well as we used to. It’s a classic example of a Pyrrhic victory, right? The losses suffered are as great as the gains won.
Perhaps a way to turn this Pyrrhic victory into an uncontested one is to acknowledge that the internet is a tool just like any other—ultimately, it’s how it’s used that counts. Before we even get to the question of what to do with this wealth of digital information, it’s worth asking, are we accessing it efficiently in the first place?
Ever googled something, got a hit on a likely looking page, gone to that page, and found no trace of the relevant excerpt included in the search summary? Or got lost in a long pdf or word document and not been able to navigate to the section you’re after? Chances are, you’re among the majority of internet users who don’t routinely use the CTRL+F (CMND+F on Mac) shortcut to locate a word, phrase, or number in almost any web page or digital document.
Research conducted by Google search anthropologist Dan Russell in 2011 found a surprising 90% of people didn’t know this shortcut and those that did were 14% faster in all their search behaviours. It’s apparently the single biggest indicator of search competence there is, so if you’re not already on the right side of the CTRL+F divide, make sure you add it to your digital vocabulary (while you’re at it, there are a heap of other super-useful search operators like wildcards and dashes worth looking up).
As Hooper and Herath remind us though, getting to the fact isn’t even half the battle. We need to be able to comprehend, collate, and analyse information. We need to understand it in order to make it meaningful, and to demonstrate that understanding in a way that matters to a target audience, be it comprised of markers, employers, readers, or otherwise. If you spend less time searching, you can spend more time thinking. We can all do a search for the Google Deep Dream project, or Dreams of Dali, the latest Salvador Dali exhibition which incorporates virtual reality—but so what? What do these things mean? How do they work? And why do they matter?
Challenge yourself to ask the tough questions, develop the digital skills to get where you need to go efficiently, and who knows where your research might end up. Hooper’s and Herath’s findings were referenced in a New York Times article by no-less a social commentator than the late, great David Carr. Now, if only I could get online to find out the title.