Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Google-Effect

TITLE: THE GOOGLE-EFFECT – reflecting on the condition of the human soul
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 19 July 2011

Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Gen 9:16)

MAIN POINT: By subcontracting learning and remembering to technologies like Google, we may have unwittingly subcontracted away more than just information.

Rainbow: Covenantal Reminder
Traditionally, the 3Rs of Learning consists of Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. In an Internet Age, there are worrying signs that the 3Rs may have turned into 1G. Google. In what is termed the Google-Effect, 1G has left the reading to Google spiders constantly roaming and collecting data from websites all over the world. It has left the writing to ‘experts’ in a Wikipedia age. It has allowed computers to do the arithmetic. In other words, as long as one has Google, one has learning all wrapped up.

My children nowadays come back from school with weblinks instead of book lists about certain research topics. They come with website references, a single piece of paper with a search parameter, or a simple instruction: “Google it!”




1) The Google-Effect

More than just a search engine
Lisa Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News writes this interesting report entitled: “Google is changing your brain.” It states that the more one knows WHERE to find information, the LESS likely one remembers the information. The ‘where’ has replaced the ‘what.’ Just like what some of my bosses used to tell me: “It is not what you know, but who you know.” In the same way, it is not what information we want to know, but where we go to get that information. The Google-Effect essentially refers to the tendency of people to skip remembering anything altogether, trusting that the ubiquitous default search engine has everything one needs to know. Teams from universities at Columbia and Harvard have discovered that there is a ‘mental dependency’ on the medium of getting the information instead of the information itself. Some people like Nicholas Carr have even gone to suggest that Google is making us dumber.

Take for example, any kind of questions your kids bring back from school. Will you be surprised that his answer for learning about the different kinds of dinosaur, or the tallest mountain in the world, or who is the next king of Zimbabwe are the same? “Google it.

Dinosaurs are googled. Mountains are googled. The entire African continent is googled. With everything being indexed so efficiently by the powerful search engine, virtually everything is Googled, taking away any requirements to exercise our memory cells or any form of brain power. Imagine students of the future entering examination halls armed only with a pen and a Tablet computer. The only difference is which answer they select out of the pages of answers that Google serves up. Chances are they will give similar answers turning the entire education system into a sham.

2) Identity Under Threat

If one’s learning is simply replaced by 2 words: “Google it,” we have what I call the Google-Effect phenomenon taking over society. When people no longer bother to remember things, they fail to use one of the most important features of the human brain: Remembering. When one fails to remember, one essential fails to understand one’s sense of identity. When I read about the Israelites journey to the Promised Land, one common refrain are the words: “Remember the covenant.”

then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.” (Lev 26:42)

The Hebrew word ‘zakar’ is a verb that brings to mind past events, emotions, and experiences associated with the memory. Ultimately, it reminds the people to remember Who has saved them out of Egypt. It reminds them Who is their God. It reminds them about their covenant made with the LORD of their forefathers. For a people who so easily forget, God tells them again and again, to remember the covenant. Perhaps, the LORD knows how absent-minded Israel is. That is why God has to tell them time and again their commitment to keep the covenant. You may ask, how is memory so important to one’s sense of identity?

Put it this way. In ancient Israel, when memories are triggered, Israel remembers what God has done for them. If the Google-Effect is at play during that time, Israel does not readily remember the covenant. They will depend on Google to show them the covenant they need to hear about. That will be most bizarre.

3) More Than Just ‘Changing Your Brain’

The researchers on the Google-Effect have hit on something about the human condition. They conclude that Google is doing something to change our brains. I think they have scratched only the surface of the problem. In other words, it goes much deeper. This Google-Effect is another of those symptoms of a vulnerable, and desperate vacuum of the human heart. It is not Google actively ‘changing’ one’s brain. It is the human heart’s tendency to prefer the easy way out. Just like more water preferring to flow down a steeper incline, the human soul prefers to go down the trail of self-seeking desires to anything else. Refusing to exercise one’s desire to remember things, one unwittingly lets the computers do the remembering. The net effect is that humans will have lost a part of their identity, and computers will have gained no meaning beyond additional amount of binary data comprising simply of 0s and 1s.

The other aspect of the human condition is to seek its sense of identity through its own means, rather than God’s ways. Lost, restless, and impatient, the human soul thinks that it is the master of its own destiny. Here are three areas of concern I have, to argue that Google is doing something more than changing our brains.

4) Three Deeper Concerns

#1 – Moving our dependence from God to Google
Very subtly, more people are moving away from asking questions within the community, by posing questions on the Internet instead. They have moved from a personal domain to an impersonal dot-com domain name. They prefer to solicit information online, instead of sharing their struggles with people offline. They no longer depend on the minister or Bible teachers to reason out questions about the faith, choosing to consume readily churned out information on web pages found by Google. In other words, Google becomes their Sunday School Teacher, Bible Study leader and even their spiritual gurus.

#2 – From Open Inquiry to Closed Search

One of the major concerns I have about the Google-Effect is the way people use information selfishly. Contrary to what many have said about Google making information easier to find, what is more troubling is this. It is not the ease of finding information, but the ease of finding specific information on the Internet to SUPPORT one’s point of view. For example in politics, if one is a Republican, and want to find reasons to support the Rightist platform, Google gives you lots of links to support the Republican position. If one is a Muslim, one can find on Google, all kinds of websites to support the Islamic religion. If one is arguing for the moral right to choose abortion, Google supplies the required information to justify one’s point of view. Easily.

#3 – Remembering Google but Forgetting Oneself

This is perhaps one of the most worrying things. Will our future become one where Google and other Internet players store all of our personal information? Will we become so reliant on Google, that we keep the most important information not on our heads, but on Google? I am particularly saddened that with technological advances, and the ready availability of electronic Bibles on iPods, iPhones and tablet computers, people are no longer finding a need to memorize Bible verses. How does it help our human souls if the Word of God is stored not in our hearts and minds, but on our electronic gadgets?

When we fail to remember God’s Word, we lose a part of ourselves. Paul when thinking of Timothy writes:

I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day,” (2 Tim 1:3)

Paul demonstrates a remarkable use of memories that have passed the test of conscience. He remembers the past dearly. He remembers his disciple, Timothy fondly. He remembers God, whom he serves daily. Will the Google-Effect change all of these for modern Christians? Without Google, will we be able to remember the way Paul has remembered?

The Psalmist calls out to God.

I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.” (Ps 143:5)

If we unwittingly subcontract our remembering the days of old, we will have lost a lot more. We lose the benefits of meditating on God’s Word. We lose the privilege of musing on the work of God’s Hands. If the Google-Effect spreads, this is most likely because we have subcontracted the remembrance of the Word of God to technologies like Google.

Beware of our over-dependence of our information based on a single source. Beware of our desire to selfishly fish only for information to support our own point of view. Beware of subcontracting the power of memory to the Google-Effect. Let the Word of God reign in your hearts, and not let the Google-Effect birds swoop down and steal the seed away from you. Let the Word of God dwell in our hearts, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Thought: “Reading the Bible without meditating on it is like trying to eat without swallowing.” (Anonymous)

sabbathwalk


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