Google Makes You Stupid

The alethiometer

My sister jokingly refers to Google as “the alethiometer” after the fictional device found in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The alethiometer is a tool that can supply the truth in answer to any question … if you know how to read it. Google is now—for many of us—a similar kind of magic device that tells us anything we do not know or remember.
Google Makes You Stupid, Tronvig Group
Two summers ago, while on vacation in Wisconsin, the question of why we never see the “dark side” of the moon was raised by one of my children. Not having the answer off the top of my head, I asked “the alethiometer.” In a matter of moments I had it: tidal locking. This illuminated the room. I was able to read the full explanation of what tidal locking is and how it works. Did I remember this information for this blog post? No. I had to look it up again.

Recently in the office we were discussing Google and how we all use it. Nearly everyone uses it for nearly everything from words they cannot spell to aid in solving a complicated design problem, and as often as not, they don’t necessarily make a point of trying to remember the information they find. It’s more a matter of bookmark it and be gone.

This modern day truth-telling device is available any time for anything, but it fosters a kind of inattention to the need to remember any of what you look up. It is assumed that the information will always be there, so why bother to actually remember it? Its future availability is deemed sufficient.

It is assumed that the information will always be there, so why bother to actually remember it? Its future availability is deemed sufficient.

It’s not.

For my children I can see that this mode of accessing information is almost as natural as breathing. The subsequent forgetting of the information once it has served its immediate purpose is also seemingly the norm. This is a bit troubling.

Creativity killer? Enticement to mental docility?

In another age—not so long ago—before “the alethiometer,” you had to try to store this information in your brain, because it was hard to look it up a second time. What you learned or discovered from books or elsewhere over time was, therefore, constantly mixed with newly obtained material you were carefully adding to what was there. This was how learning worked. It was not as efficient, and you were always losing some things as you went along, but out of this percolating brew of knowledge came thoughts and ideas that were made possible because your mind was actively putting this stored information together in new and interesting ways. This manipulation of information is a key aspect of creativity and intelligence.

Always knowing that you can easily find out anything you might want to know without actually having to recall it is really quite new. It strongly undercuts the drive to try and store a lot of different things in your head. I think you need to have a wide variety of source material actually stored if you really want to think about things deeply, and more importantly, you need this if you want to be able to see how retained knowledge relates to and enriches your understanding of new things that you learn. Easy access to information is very convenient and even liberating, but it is also making us lazy and … stupid.

Easy access to information is very convenient and even liberating, but it is also making us lazy and … stupid.

Some interesting research including this study by Betsy Sparrow at Columbia University supports these observations, and if you think about it, it’s kind of scary for its implications–how easy it is to manipulate people who are in the habit of NOT remembering much or thinking deeply about anything, people who have been habituated to just grabbing whatever information they need, using it, and then just tossing it away.

Wise words of an old friend

On hearing the very sad news that Ray Bradbury died this week, I feel I should append this post with quote from him:

“I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to get the subconscious to do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind; these automatically become symbols on a subliminal level and need only be summoned in the heat of writing.”*


Now considering all of the above, maybe it’s time to sit down and read a good book.


This post was written in mid 2012. I see The Conversation—which we created in in the summer of 2014—as my antidote or reaction to this new Google supplemented reality. Those who have participated in The Conversation report a deep sense of pleasure in the kind of thinking it facilitates.

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Thanks to Kai Xiang Lin for creating our “blue matter” version of a Google doodle.

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2 thoughts on “Google Makes You Stupid

  1. Robert says:

    I have come to think this way – we have a certain amount of room in our heads for stuff – when some goes in, other goes out. I suspect that in the more distant past, there were other things the average person kept in their head.

    Here is an example that has always stuck with me. In Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist, she tells this story. She and some guides were out tracking gorillas early on in her tenure in Rwanda. She saw what looked like fresh scat and became very excited thinking the gorillas had been there recently and wanted the guides to hurry up. The guides said no, the scat was at least 4 hours old and the gorillas were long gone. Fossey kept prodding (literally and figuratively) about the scat arguing it was fresh and the gorillas were nearby. Finally the guide said something like “do you see the tracks of the rodent that walked over the scat? They are from a nocturnal rodent. The sun came up four hours ago. Therefore, the tracks were made at least four hours ago. Therefore, the scat was deposited by the gorilla at least four hours ago and the gorilla is long gone.”

    I suspect that the guide thought that all of the formal schooling that Fossey had gone through had made her stupid, too. So, rather than abstractly suspecting that Google has made us stupid, how has this alleged stupidity adversely impacted how we function today in carrying out whatever it is we need to do? Knowing the dark side of the moon is ancillary information for my existence. Remembering how to get to work every day, and that if I drive over 20 mph in a school zone, and where is the best place to get supplies for job, and the relevant articles for the research paper I am writing – those are important things.

    I was lecturing in class once and used the term more than you could shake a stick at” and it struck me – I wonder where that saying came from – and I googled, and got an answer, and have now forgotten it, other than it had something to do taverns. Not really all that important to my daily existence either – and I don’t feel stupid about forgetting it

    • James Heaton says:

      Robert, thank you for your thoughtful and eloquent comments. I am, of course, being a bit provocative with this post, and your points are very well taken.

      I absolutely agree that we don’t have room for everything in our heads so the question is what we choose to put there. I think that Google, and the Internet in general, encourages us to consume lots of information—with speed and cursoriness—and this encourages less consideration of a topic’s value for something later—like the need to accurately read scat—or to learn what a trim tab is. Both of these things are likely to be put in the category of the “unimportant,” but for me the trim tab metaphor (as the Bradbury quote is intended to illustrate) is actually an extraordinary insight that you might want stored somewhere for later use. If I had discovered it by reading only the Wikipedia entry on the subject, I would likely never have given it enough consideration to really bother to think it useful. It would have been utterly forgotten by the next day, and I would probably never return to that entry or that thought.

      This is a skew toward the fast and furious, and the tendency for ideas—when delivered through this medium—to leave little in the way of a lasting impressions on the mind. That concerns me.

      As a practical and a research tool, Google is an extraordinary gift, and I am glad that it exists. It does an impressive job, particularly in the realm of non-commercial search, but I still lament the mode of thinking that Google style learning encourages because it comes at the expense of something slower, deeper and less filled with nearly infinite variety and choice. I still value this older mode of learning, but I feel it being stripped away from me in the wash and thrust of this information intensive age.

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