IS GOOGLE KILLING GENERAL KNOWLEDGE by Bamber Gascoigne ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
One day last year a daughter of Earl Spencer (who is therefore a niece of Princess Diana) called a taxi to take her and a friend from her family home at Althorp in Northamptonshire to see Chelsea play Arsenal at football. She told the driver “Stamford Bridge”, the name of Chelsea’sstadium, but he delivered them instead to the village of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, nearly 150 miles in the opposite direction. They missed the game.
Such stories are becoming commonplace. A coachload of English schoolchildren bound for the historic royal palace at Hampton Court wasted an entire day battling through congested central London as their sat-nav led them stubbornly to a narrow backstreet of the same name in Islington. A Syrian lorry driver aiming for Gibraltar, at the southern tip of Spain, turned up 1,600 miles away in the English east-coast town of Skegness, which has a Gibraltar Point nearby.
Two complementary things are happening in these stories. One is that these people are displaying a woeful ignorance of geography. In the case of Stamford Bridge, one driver and twopassengers spent well over two hours in a car without noticing that instead of passing Northampton and swiftly entering the built-up sprawl of London, their view continued to be largely of fields and forests, and they were seeing signs for Nottingham, Doncaster and the North. They should have known.
The other is more subtle. Everybody involved in these stories has consciously handed overresponsibility for knowing geography to a machine. With the sat-nav on board, they believed that they did not need to know about north or south, Spain or England, leafy Surrey or gridlocked Islington. That was the machine’s job. Like an insurance company with its call centre or a local council with its bin collections, they confidently outsourced the job of knowing this stuff, or of finding it out, tothat little computer on the dashboard.
Here is another story. A former winner of the BBC quiz show “Mastermind” recently took part in a pub quiz which came down to a tiebreaker between his team and a group of young people who were relying on BlackBerrys. Anyone familiar with quizzes these days knows that this can happen, whether it is under the table or outside in the smokers’ zone; thecombination of wireless internet access and Google searching is simply too powerful for some to resist and for others to prevent. In this case, happily, virtue triumphed and the team led by the Mastermind champion won. Then afterwards a young woman from the losing side came over and asked in baffled tones: “How did you get that?” So attuned was she to the idea that answering quiz questions was a task tobe outsourced to the internet that she seemed not to understand the idea of general knowledge that was kept in the head.
Is this where we are heading? A Google search, once you have keyed the words in, takes a broadband user less than a second, and the process will only get quicker. As for those laborious keystrokes, voice-recognition technology will enable us to bypass them. And soon prettywell everybody, from schoolchildren to drinkers in pubs, will be online pretty well all of the time. In that context, perhaps there is no longer any point in keeping facts in our heads. If you want to know who wrote “Skellig”, or whether Norway is a member of the European Union, or what Cary Grant’s real name was, you ask your laptop or your phone.
I teach undergraduates, and I am prepared to betthat many other teachers have found themselves wondering whether they are seeing this force at work. The average student, though better-informed than the earl’s daughter appears to be, seems not to value general knowledge. If asked a factual question, they will usually click on a search engine without a second thought. Actually knowing the fact, committing it to memory, does not seem to be a...
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