Everyone knows Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” button. Next to it is the regular “Google search” button. So one can choose whether to let Google provide the “best” answer to a query, or get all the links that Google can come up with. Some browsers don’t even give you that choice; a Google search takes you directly to the “lucky” answer. And for some queries, e.g. “who is the president of India?”, Google gives you the answer (Pranab Mukherjee), framed and in large size, with a photo of the president and his title, “India, President”, just to make doubly sure.
In fact, even before finishing your question (“who is the president…”), Google guesses the rest of it and proposes a few options to you (“…of India”, “…of UAE”, “…of Canada”, even “… of UK”!). Why those choices specifically? Why not “…of China”, “…of France”, or others?
This is where it gets interesting and more troublesome. Depending on your location, and the computer and account (e.g. Gmail) you are using, Google keeps track of your (and others’) searches and online activity, and so it gives you very different answers to your queries. Google believes it is saving you time by “knowing” your interests, your preferences, and even your search intentions. In doing so, however, it is simply narrowing your mind and your horizons.
I never use that “I’m feeling lucky” button, even though I know it can be quite effective at getting me quick and correct answers. I’ve always looked at it as a lazy man’s, non-curious man’s choice. Indeed, I want to be given a list of links, and I rarely click on any of them until I have (quickly) scanned at least the first page of 10 choices. Indeed, very often something catches my eye that I would not have been able to search for specifically: An author I am not familiar with, a new interesting website, a news item that escaped me recently, etc.
To put it simply, I don’t want Google to take away my chances of discovering new things. I want to retain the online browsing/discovering experience, just as I have always loved browsing through the shelves of a library or the aisles of a bookstores, waiting for a book to catch my eye, giving me a chance to browse through its pages, checking out other books by the same author or in the same category, etc.
Today Google, with its extraordinary efficiency at getting us the (mostly right) information we are looking for and doing it in the blink of an eye, is killing that discovery process. It is even killing our tendency to ask questions. Indeed, Google not only completes your question before you have formulated it fully, it narrows it by giving you quick, short, non-challenging answers; it sometimes frames it neatly, implying that your exploration has been completed.
And by getting that kind of prompt, short, definite answer to our questions by way of smartphones, we have developed the tendency to end a discussion by just googling up the question. “Here, look, it says…” — end of discussion.
Google’s CEO has predicted that one day, not too far off in the future, microchips will be implanted in our brains, and any burgeoning question in our minds will immediately be quelled by a quick answer. The very concept of “question” will disappear, as the time interval between a thought in your mind and the “answer” to it will be reduced to near zero.
Ian Leslie, the author of the recently published Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it, explains that realising how much we do not know on a given question is what leads us to further, deeper explorations of that topic and really makes us more knowledgeable, not the satisfaction of getting minimal information on a given matter. We are becoming ignorant of our own ignorance, believing that we do have knowledge on a given issue because we just looked up Google’s answer to a question about it.
Paul Harris, a professor at Harvard, has estimated that children between ages 3 and 5 ask 40,000 questions. We are born curious and hard-wired to ask questions; we know from our youngest age that there is a world of things to learn and discover. But as educational psychologists have shown, our society gradually kills that tendency, and by the time we are adults we have been formatted to only ask “the right questions”.
But questions should always be open, asked in different frames, and given time to mature and be refined. Questions are most productive when they unfold into a series of questions. It is in that process that new ideas are born, that creativity acts best.
Google and the web have produced a huge dilemma for educators. What should be taught when almost all information is available by just a few clicks? Can we teach analytical “skills”, critical thinking, and creative expertise without building on a strong base of information? What minimal information must a student possess in his/her mind that he/she will need for more advanced tasks? Can’t the Google-connected smartphone be like an external hard drive where our brains store essentially all information?
These are complex questions that we must address as Google becomes more and more dominant and ubiquitous. For sure, Google does not have answers to these questions, certainly not quick, “frameable” ones.
And while we explore and debate these issues, we must cultivate in our children and our students the habit of asking questions. Google must be the starting point for a search, not the repository of quick answers to our questions. The web must be approached as a huge field for discoveries, not a destination for quick, specific answers.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.