I Google, Therefore I Know?

[ Mon. Jan. 25. 2010 ]

If there's something that fascinates me about the digital age, it's the evolution of the human psyche as it adjusts to the rapid expansion of informational reach and acceleration of informational flow.

The Edge Foundation, Inc. poses one question a year to be batted around by deep thinkers, this year: How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think? One contribution that's bound to infuriate those of us of an older persuasion (I'll raise my hand) came from Marissa Mayer, the V.P. for Search Products & User Experience at Google.

The Internet, she posits, has vanquished the once seemingly interminable search for knowledge.

"The Internet has put at the forefront resourcefulness and critical-thinking," writes Mayer, "and relegated memorization of rote facts to mental exercise or enjoyment." She says that we now understand things in an instant, concepts that pre-Web would have taken us months to figure out.

So, basically, you don't have to memorize the The Gettysburg Address anymore, you just have to Google it or link to it. But here's my question: If you can Google it, does that mean you really understand it?

A favorite writer of mine, Nicholas Carr, who deals with all matters digital, cultural and technological has a good answer to that question. In his reply to Marissa Mayer, Carr offers a potent analysis of the difference between knowing and meaning.

He uses (brace yourself) a critical exploration of Robert Frost's poetry by Richard Poirier —Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing— to challenge what I might call the Google mentality.

"It's not what you can find out," he wrote. "Frost and (William) James and Poirier told us, it's what you know."

Gathering facts is not the same as gathering knowledge.