Google is one of the most useful tools to come from the Internet age. Anyone with a computer or a smartphone has the entirety of human knowledge at their fingertips. While this access is an amazing advancement, it has changed the way we learn. Dubbed the “Google effect,” how has the search engine changed the way we think and the way we learn things? Is the Google effect a problem, and if so, what do we need to do to fix it?
What Is the Google Effect?
How many phone numbers do you remember by heart? For most of us, the list is fairly small. We have smartphones to remember the numbers for us. It’s led to a trend of “new phone, who dis?” text messages because we don’t recall the phone number of our closest friends. The Google effect is also referred to as digital amnesia—and according to experts, up to 90 percent of us are suffering from it.
Digital amnesia doesn’t necessarily mean we’re forgetting stuff we’ve already learned—it’s not amnesia like you’re probably thinking of. We’re not learning the same way that we used to, and that’s changing the way that we’re looking at the world around us.
Changes to Learning
We might have all of the collective human knowledge at our fingertips, but that doesn’t mean we’re learning it all. This idea leads back to the concept of digital amnesia. We can find out the answer to nearly anything with a couple of keystrokes—but we don’t remember it. You can look up a physics equation and memorize it from a Website, but that doesn’t mean you understand it or the math behind it.
This change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. One study, helmed by a researcher at Yale University, found that even if the information isn’t retained, being able to confirm their conclusions via a search engine such as Google increased student confidence. A number of studies have found student confidence is vital for education success—and not knowing the answer to a question can be detrimental to that confidence.
Another study found that while students didn’t retain the information, they did remember how to quickly and easily locate it again. While this knowledge isn’t as good as memorizing the details as we were taught in school, it is a useful skill and can help to bridge the gap between memorization and digital information.
This process leads right back to the cell phone dilemma mentioned above. People don’t learn their friends’ and family members’ phone numbers, because they know exactly where to find them.
Changes to Thought and Memory
Google is no longer just a Website or a search engine—it has become a verb. To Google something is to search for the answer to a question—whether you’re using Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, or some other search engine. We grew up on Yahoo and Ask Jeeves, and Google has grown to dominate the industry.
Having all of this information at our fingertips has changed the way we think, and not for the better. Google might provide the answers—you can even plug algebra equations into the Google search bar and have the solution handed to you on a silver platter—but it also offers up answers as a place to stop. It gives you the answers without teaching you how to find them yourself.
This convenience has led to a breakdown in critical thinking—a skill that is necessary to thrive in today’s ever-changing world. We need to be able to think outside the box, and while Google can give you the answers, it’s become a box we voluntarily trap ourselves in.
This isn’t to say we should avoid Google at all costs; we just shouldn’t be using it as the be-all end-all for learning and information collection. Even Wikipedia can be a useful tool if you learn how to use it right.
Changes in the Workplace
The search-engine giant isn’t just changing the way students learn new concepts—it’s affecting them once they leave high school and enter the working world, as well. The ability to search for information has changed the face of the workplace—and not always for the better. Even the Google empire itself isn’t immune—the average worker spends only about a year at the company, a catastrophic turnover rate most other companies wouldn’t be able to survive.
It also makes it harder for companies to ensure the people they’re hiring are actually skilled. It’s easier than it’s ever been for someone to, quite literally, “fake it till they make it,” looking up how to do something they haven’t been trained in or gone to school for and learning just enough to get by.
Again, this change isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it also can provide these same employees with the edge they need to succeed in the business world. With the current state of the economy, it can be difficult to find a niche in which you can succeed, and Google and other search engines can make the difference between a successful business and a failure.
Google has been the foundation of the search engine pyramid for 20 years, and it will continue to grow. It’s not the search engine that needs to change, per say. What needs to change is the way we absorb information and the way that information is presented.
We have all the data, details, and answers in the world at our fingertips, but it doesn’t mean we know how to use them. We need to learn how to absorb information again. If we can do that, Google will become an even better tool. Having the information matters, but understanding how it works is essential.
Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance writer and STEM blogger. She regularly contributes to IMPO Magazine and Born2Invest. She also updates her own blog, Schooled By Science, every Tuesday and Thursday. Stay in touch by following her on Twitter or subscribing to her blog here.