The difference between googling and knowing

- Nicola M. Sebastian - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Let’s play a little game. I’ll think of random topics that I know nothing about, and give my own two cents on them. Sounds like your overbearing Tita Cheeky? Just bear with me for a sec:

The latest Aaron Sorkin show The Newsroom? Yeah, he’s recycled some of his old jokes from The West Wing, and still has a problem with feminine characters. NBA? Jeremy Lin just signed a $25 million, three-year contract with the Houston Rockets, which might help the team rebuild their franchise in NBA-crazy China, after Yao Ming. Potentially habitable exoplanets? Don’t get too excited: “potentially habitable” just means they’re in the right position to possibly have the conditions necessary for life.

Not bad, huh, considering I have never watched five seconds of The West Wing, had no idea that Houston had any Rockets besides the ones in NASA, and don’t possess even a quark of scientific competency. I mean, by Google, didn’t I sound like I know more than I actually do?

Unlimited Access

This little exercise shows how the Internet has given us unlimited access to everything that has ever been known. Great stuff. But it’s also starting to make us act like we do, in fact, know everything. You never need to ask a question out loud or hide your ignorance during a conversation ever again — at least if you can manage to sneak in a quick Google. And the problem is that it’s getting harder to tell the difference.

There’s a meme floating in hyperspace that goes: “Google before you tweet is the new think before you speak.” It sounds sensible enough, reducing pointless debates between hot-headed paramours, lazy misconceptions, and overall stupidity. But is Googling really the same thing as thinking nowadays? Or, worse, has it replaced it?

A couple of months ago, Google introduced something they’re calling the Knowledge Graph: a search engine that doesn’t just generate results, but thinks about these results, looking beyond the mere queries a user types in order to deliver what he is really searching for: knowledge. As their intro video says, they’re making the move from information engine to knowledge engine.

Gray Matter

It’s still very rough and not that useful, but it should remind us that there is in fact a difference between information and knowledge. Being in the know isn’t the same as real knowing — and it’s a matter of gray matter. You can drop Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Gaiman quotes all you like, retweet the New York Times like a boss, subscribe to sites like Cool Hunting on your iReader, and Google your obscure pop-cultural references to your heart’s desire. But all that instant data doesn’t instantly make you wiser. Despite appearances, that online persona that you’ve carefully crafted, thinking is still not as easy as clicking.

The Net has delivered all this easy-access information to our fingertips, but it doesn’t come with the ability to process it — that’s sold separately. A couple of years ago, writer Nicholas Carr asked the question, “Is Google making us stupid?” concerned that all this shallow browsing has turned us into shallow thinkers. It’s no wonder some people are calling it the Too-Much-Information Age instead.


Of course, power-browsing isn’t the bad guy here. It’s the only possible way to sift through all the knowledge we’ve stockpiled since the Stone Ages without becoming the first person to ever internally combust. But the true power of human thought is in the processing, in connecting the dots. Technology is certainly taking over more of that cerebral work for us, like that Knowledge Graph, or those crazy Google Glasses that will, in a couple years, provide information about your life as you walk, talk, and take a piss, I suppose. But as technology becomes ever more a part of us, bringing us closer to a future where cyborgs rule the world (if sci-fi’s to be believed), it’s important to remember that we are still the users — the buck, or the byte, still stops with us.

Just think of it as a matter of nutrition, says TED speaker JP Rangaswami. The notion of food for thought, basically, but this time with nutritional facts. A lot of the information we consume amounts to empty calories, convenient but short-lived: your daily scroll through Facebook a pack of chips, your ONTD feed a candy bar. Fine for a quick snack, but not exactly a hearty lunch to feed your personal enlightenment. With all the information shoved in our faces these days, it pays to be more discerning, to spend a little more time thinking on the things we browse. Because the more we depend on technology, the more we are what we click.

Our Own Curators

When it comes to the infinity of the Internet, we are our own curators. Maybe it’s about developing a sort of digital intuition, an Internet instinct as innate as our ability to speak. We’ve only been fiddling with computers for less than a century, so give us a break — we’re working on it.

Don’t let your cyberspace forays end with a “Like,” @namedrop, a reblog. Search deeper, browse longer, connect the dots, and file away promising ideas for future use. We may not be able to use all the info that assaults us at that very moment, but if we remember to surf smart, the bits and bytes we chance upon and seemingly forget about have a way of germinating in our brains unconsciously, like forgotten acorns buried under the snow. And then, one day, it’ll all just — click.

Or maybe we just need, like, a bigger hard drive.

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Tweet me @nicolapops.










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