Is Google God?
Columnist Thomas Friedman posed this question in The New York Times in June of 2003. Quoting the vice-president of a Wi-Fi provider, Friedman writes that “Google, combined with Wi-Fi, is a little bit like God. God is wireless, God is everywhere and God sees and knows everything. Throughout history, people connected to God without wires. Now, for many questions in the world, you ask Google, and increasingly, you can do it without wires, too.”
Now Friedman’s question seems prescient. Taken from “googol” (the numeral 1 followed by 100 zeros), signifying how much information Google initially hoped to catalog, “Googling” has now become synonymous with the search for information.
Interestingly, when Tim Berners-Lee first imagined the web as its inventor, he named it “Enquire,” short for Enquire Within upon Everything, a “musty old book of Victorian advice I noticed as a child in my parents’ house outside London. With its title suggestive of magic, the book served as a portal to a world of information, everything from how to remove clothing stains to tips on investing money.”
His original title was more prophetic than he could have imagined.
There can be little doubt that what began as a graduate project of two 20-something Stanford students is now shaping the world. But how? Few would deny the convenience of the project, and the value it can bring, but there are troubling dynamics.
One in particular: the trivialization of knowledge.
Consider three of the most popular Google searches for this last Monday (yes, you can even google Google):
- TLC (the musical group)
- Jenna Jameson (the porn star)
- Kelly Clarkson (she got married)
Not exactly the writings of Foucault.
Because of the internet, there is a widening chasm between wisdom and information. Quentin Schultze writes that the torrent of information now at our disposal is often little more than “endless volleys of nonsense, folly and rumor masquerading as knowledge, wisdom, and even truth.”
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has noted that “Google has changed the relationship of people to information. For the last 300 or 400 years, information has been collected on college, university and seminary campuses … You went to the collected information to learn. Today the information is available anywhere you want, just Google it.”
This creates a new challenge for educators. Rather than primarily dispensing information, Kelley said educators must spend much more of their time helping students evaluate information. He’s right. It is as if we’ve dropped a library card onto the world, but removed the classroom that gives us the literacy to read its contents, much less the education needed to interpret its contents.
For example, google almost anything, and the top of the results will almost undoubtedly be its Wikipedia article, the online encyclopedia which is written entirely by unpaid volunteers.
Though praised for “democratizing knowledge” by such luminaries as Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, Wikipedia has had more than its fair share of detractors. The site first drew unwanted attention when journalist John Seigenthaler exposed gross errors and fabrications in the entry on his life. Numerous scholars have voiced concern that the encyclopedia is an unreliable research tool, and lament students’ use of the resource. A paper by a University of California at Merced graduate student revealed many of Wikipedia’s flaws, including often indifferent prose and some serious problems with accuracy.
Regardless of the accuracy of certain articles (and in fairness to Wikipedia, a study by the journal Nature found Wikipedia’s articles on science nearly as accurate as those that appear in the Encyclopaedia Britannica), and separate from the movement advocating free access to information online, political satirist Stephen Colbert has put his finger on the real issue in his coining of a single term:
Wikiality is “reality as determined by majority vote,” such as when astronomers voted Pluto off their list of planets. Colbert notes that any user can log on and make a change on any entry, and if enough users agree, it becomes “true.” If only the entire body of knowledge could work this way, offers Colbert. And through a new “wikiality,” he maintains it can. “Together we can create a reality we can all agree on. The reality we just agreed on.”
And that is the problem.
So is Google our new god?
Let’s hope not.
It would be a wiki one.