What’s the biggest influence on the way we think? (Googli…


This is a month of anniversaries, of which two in particular stand out. One is that it’s 10 years since the seismic shock of the banking crisis – one of the consequences of which is the ongoing unravelling of the (neo)liberal democracy so beloved of western ruling elites. The other is that it’s 20 years since Google arrived on the scene.

Future historians will see our era divided into two ages: BG and AG – before and after Google. For web users in the 1990s search engines were a big deal, because as the network exploded, finding anything on it became increasingly difficult. Like many of my peers, I used AltaVista, a search tool developed by the then significant Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which was the best thing available at the time.

And then one day, word spread like wildfire online about a new search engine with a name bowdlerised from googol, the mathematical term for a huge number (10 to the power of 100). It was clean, fast and delivered results derived from conducting a kind of peer review of all the sites on the web. Once you tried it, you never went back to AltaVista.

Twenty years on, it’s still the same story. Other search engines are available (Bing, WolframAlpha, DuckDuckGo, to name just three), but basically Google – with a market share ranging from 80% to 90%, depending on territory – is really the only game in town. Its centrality is symbolised by the fact that it’s even become a verb. “Just Google it” is now a part of everyday conversation (no one ever talks about “Binging it”), which means that Google has effectively become a memory prosthesis for humanity. You don’t have to bother remembering stuff any more because Google will always help you find it.

In that sense, it’s become one of those indispensable tools – like pens and paper, typewriters and reading glasses, calculators and spreadsheets – that humans have acquired over the centuries to boost their cognitive capacity. The trouble is that dependence on such resources has consequences. The arrival of the electronic calculator, for example, meant that our capacity to do mental arithmetic evaporated. Likewise, who can nowadays remember more than a few telephone numbers? And university students increasingly have difficulty in examinations because their handwriting has atrophied.

As a tool, though, Google search is in a different league from earlier tools, and so the consequences of being dependent on it are more serious and far-reaching – for two inter-related reasons. The first is that it can influence what you think you know and shape the way you think because it knows more about you than you realise. And secondly, it’s not a passive tool that you own and control, but the property of a huge corporation that has acquired strange – and in some ways unprecedented – powers.

Ten years ago, Nicholas Carr published a striking article – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” – in the Atlantic. The title was misleading because the thrust of the piece was actually about how the internet might be messing with our brains, and in that sense Carr was using Google as a proxy for the technology in general. Which is a pity because there are plenty of important questions to be asked about Google’s impact on the way we think. Its search results, for example, are heavily influenced by how many websites it finds that are supposedly relevant to a query. Sometimes, that’s fine. But sometimes it’s toxic – yet many people think it provides the “truth”. And because people’s search queries can sometimes be very revealing, the company knows more about people’s innermost secrets, fears and fantasies than even their friends or partners. We ask Google questions that we would not breathe to any living soul.

So Google, as philosopher Benjamin Curtis points out, is anything but a passive cognitive tool. Its current offerings, boosted by machine learning algorithms, are increasingly suggestive. Its Maps not only provide navigational help but give us “personalised location suggestions that it thinks will interest us”. Gmail makes helpful suggestions about what to type in a reply and Google News highlights stories that it believes we will find interesting. “All of this,” says Curtis, “removes the very need to think and make decisions for ourselves.” It “fills gaps in our cognitive processes, and so fills gaps in our minds”.

In two short decades, therefore, Google has gone from being a geeky delight to something that influences the way we think. All of which brings to mind something that John Culkin, a buddy of Marshall McLuhan, said many years ago: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Amen to that. And you can Google him to check the quote.

What I’m reading

Gee whiz
How quickly will the switch to electric cars – made by Elon Musk (below) and his ilk – happen? Slowly at first, and then very quickly. Bloomberg had an interesting report last week about how Norway went  from 6% to 47% electric in five years.

Speech impediment
Facebook et al pin their hopes on AI as a way of stopping hate-speech online, but research suggests it’s a pipe dream, according to a piece in the Register last week.

Under the knife
The US healthcare system is crazy. This astonishing article to be found at meaningness.com’s metablog explains why.

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