On Pew: Google, Stupidity, and Chief Economists

Reading Pew’s new study on whether or not Google makes us stupid (about which one of my team said, “Maybe people are just born that way…”), I was struck by the sheer number of times people equated intelligence with speed of information recall.  There were some excellent quotes further down the article that delved into the two-pronged crux of the problem: search queries themselves and ranking.  But overall, the experts seemed to focus on an entirely too facile notion of intelligence.  

First, Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google (WTF? Are they a sovereign country now?  Adam, I want a new title):
"Google will make us more informed. The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India. Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world."
Good God.  I know PR talk, I hate PR talk, and this is PR talk.  Somehow he makes the error that access to information = smarts.  Or maybe he is making the more nuanced case that they have the ability to have smarts.  In either case, simple access does not IQ make.  Indeed, my autistic uncle can tell you nearly any airplane tail number but he has problems understanding that a vacuum costs more than a candy bar.

Next, Andreas Kuth from the Economist:
What the internet (here subsumed tongue-in-cheek under "Google") does is to support SOME parts of human intelligence, such as analysis, by REPLACING other parts such as memory.”
Better.  Agree that we can ‘offload’ rote tasks to engines but I don’t think there is cognitive science that supports the requirement (or even the statement) that our minds work in some sort of zero-sum fashion.  

Axel Bruns from Oz weighs in:
“That said, I don’t know that the reverse is true, either: Google and the Net also don’t automatically make us smarter. By 2020, we will have even more access to even more information, using even more sophisticated search and retrieval tools — but how smartly we can make use of this potential depends on whether our media literacies and capacities have caught up, too."
Ah – now we’re getting somewhere.  The first real mention of the need for people to be able to parse the information they receive – to make use of it in a cognitive framework that enables — wait for it — mental quantum superposition (I swear I’m going to make that stick) to enable the data retrieval to augment decision making capabilities.

Nearly done – Peter Griffiths from the Home Office in the UK (is there an Away Office, too?):
The potential for stupidity comes where we rely on Google (or Yahoo, or Bing, or any engine) to provide relevant information in response to poorly constructed queries, frequently one-word queries, and then base decisions or conclusions on those returned items."
Ring the bell!  The dirty little secret of search engines.  Most people’s queries are nonsensical.  Imagine walking into a bar and yelling out “copaxone”!  What would happen?  Besides a couple of drunks chiming in, thinking it a football chant, most folks would try and figure out what you meant by the outburst.  Do you want to buy it?  Do you want to see the side effects?  Want to know what the hell it is?  Today’s engines almost seem like the doofy jock who doesn’t want to look stupid by asking you to clarify so he just throws back as many responses to your question as possible.  Folks – this is a mess.

Finally, Robert Lunn says:
“There should also be a distinction made between data and information. Data is meaningless in the absence of an organizing context. That means that different people looking at the same data are likely to come to different conclusions.”
And there it is – data and knowledge are two very different things.  I know that it is 9 degrees in Kansas City tonight, but that information doesn’t tell me I need to wear a coat unless I also know that 9 degrees is a) in Fahrenheit and b) that my body will lose heat quickly due to the crazy laws of thermodynamics should I not wear something over my boxers.  People need access to context to understand the data – not just more data.

So that gets us to the real problems with today’s engines: how many of them think about indexing data and ranking results.  Today’s web is one of objects, not just text: services, multimedia, real-time chatter, networks of people, etc.  This shift in the online landscape has profound effects on how we will think of search in the future.  The notion that we will enter keywords into a white box and get back a bunch of links is very 1999.  

The power of "search engines" will become evident when they become smarter about the objects they are seeing across the web and have the ability to ‘broker’ solutions to complex decisions you have to make.  Wolfram Alpha and Bing’s Task Pages are good examples of where search can go – a real-time assemblage of heterogeneous sources of information in response to a derived intent of the user.  

Will the current engine models make us stupid?  Probably.  As they are like a small child who answers only the question you ask, searchers who lack time, skill, or curiosity will likely simply reinforce their world view on any number of topics.  It is only when we move beyond today’s dominant paradigm of keyword-based info retrieval and push engines to answer us like a trusted oracle that can guide the exploration will we begin to achieve intelligence through search.


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