Google Makes You Stupid If By Stupid You Mean Informed

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A recent Columbia University study is a salve for teachers worried that Google’s making them–and their students–stupid.

Of course Google doesn’t do anything directly. It is simply a search engine that provides access to information. The idea that such access might make you “stupid” likely comes from a kind of guilt that comes from making something that used to be difficult–well, less difficult.

If it’s easy it must not be worth doing.

But Google doesn’t provide insight–it provides information. And access there is anything but a bad thing.

Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow explains.

“Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things. Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.”

Semantics get in the way here a little. Remembering and recalling are an important part of knowing, but different nonetheless.

“Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization,” said Sparrow. “And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding.”

Access to facts and “lower-level” knowledge provides a more fertile ground for higher-level learning. And just because the process of finding such knowledge is simpler doesn’t neuter or de-authenticate the learning; rather it frees up the learner for more important thinking that a computer can’t duplicate.

The image of learning through the time-honored academic survey of dozens of books across a half-dozen floors of a university library is appealing, and Google cannot entirely replace that process. The intellectual serendipity of looking for this but finding that instead is available both in a book and the search bar of your Google Chrome browser. Distraction, evaluation, question revision, and credibility are issues no matter where the information is found.

Online or off, at that point of the research process it’s up to the learning habits of the searcher.

And you can’t blame those on Google.