If there was one thing I could always count on, it was being the smartest person in the room. And before you think I’m a self righteous smug narcissist, I don’t mean actual smart. Like astrophysicist smart or bio-chemical engineering smart. I mean useless random smart. Or Jeopardy! smart if you will. Not really very helpful in day to day life, but a part of me that I have always held dear. Something that simply means the most random of text queries often float my way. Or I’ll wake up in the morning to the last post in a group chat being, “where’s Dave he’ll know.” Over time I’ve become the go-to source for answers to everyone’s questions. My collection of useless information started years ago by reading every newspaper, park info sign, toothpaste tube and soup can within eyesight. It’s ended with reading to the far end of the internet every day. Although, these days that’s not really a hobby I recommend.
Now, bear with me here as I quickly lay out how being riddled with anxiety means always questioning things, and especially your relationship to those around you. With any luck, everything will come full circle with the Google and being smart thing that we’re all here for. For me, a big part of my relationships, at least in my own mind, is being a valuable resource of information. I mean, people don’t like me for me, but at least they like me for my cranial encyclopedia. Admittedly not very healthy, but you gotta do what you gotta do. Now enter the internet, and the wealth of knowledge it presents. Then the iPhone, and the wealth of knowledge it put right in your hands every moment of the day. Having the power of Google to provide the answer to every question ever posed. Believe me that when I saw the rise of the smartphone, it was a very real visceral fear that I would no longer be a valuable person in other people’s lives. A major part of my identity would be, while not taken away, at least be deemed redundant and fairly useless.
Of course it’s ridiculous to think that relationships of mine would end because I was no longer needed to provide answers to obscure and irrelevant questions. But it wasn’t ridiculous to think that a major facet of my own self would be laid to waste. A major point of self pride stripped away. Or that my level of importance in other people’s lives would slowly slip. All because of Ask Jeeves and Yahoo! Answers. Ok maybe not those two.
- Google is a tire fire of a mess.
- People are extraordinarily lazy.
When you combine number two with number one, the most expected of things happens. As most people know, Google (and of course Wikipedia and other online resources) is an incredibly powerful resource. And if you know how to use it properly to dig into the layers of information, amazing depth of understanding on any topic can be created in a relatively short period of time. In my myopic naivety I assumed that everyone would be taking advantage of this insane new toy and searching for Fun Facts during all of their spare time. As it turns out, this seems to not be a pastime for the masses. Who knew? Probably everyone except myself.
What seems to have happened, instead of my original fear, is practically the exact opposite. That I am held in higher regard because I am a walking Google. Again, please stop thinking that I view myself as the exulted mighty trivia brain upon high with a menacing store of facts that has the ability to permeate the thoughts of others with a single glance. Although…….
Instead of this fun scenario, life has just continued on with more of the random questions. I’m guessing this is because often I give you a quick and easy answer. Hey, I’m too lazy to look something up so let me ask my friend David, gimme a sec. Much easier than scrolling though Google results wondering which link holds the key to the question of the moment. Or at least scrolling the first page of Google results. There are many times I wonder what percentage of people ever click on page two or beyond. I should Google that.
But has a new foe arrived on the scene? A new simplified version of Google? Hey Google? Alexa? The forgotten old lady Siri? I think maybe yes and no. These devices wouldn’t have reached their level of ubiquitousness without providing services and information that people actually use. However, the level of knowledge gleaned from using them as a resource seems to be quite superficial. How short is Tom Cruise? What is the speed of sound? Why do people read soup cans? Basic stuff like that. Questions that require a more nuanced response, or a little more comprehensive understanding, can’t really be answered yet through this technology. Don’t worry though. That will be the job of Ask Jeeves 2.0, your personal companion of the future that keeps you company on those cold winter nights.
After living in the age of Google for quite some time, and observing how my particular brand of knowledge works within the current world, I’ve anecdotally noticed that people seem to not know the answers to some really common questions. Some of it being stupid trivia, but other stuff that I think people would have simply picked up and retained along the way. How many cups in a litre? How long is my leftover pizza good for? Is it safe to eat a spoonful of cinnamon? Basic things like that.
My guy on the couch hypothesis from all of this is that, with the assumption that all the answers are within a finger swipe’s distance from us at all times, there has been a certain drop of learning of all kinds of information. Because we know that we can get the answer whenever we want, there is no need to seek out the answer until we encounter the question. As a result, I think there has been a general drop in overall learning and self education with the rise of our connected and on-demand society. The exception to the rule however, is what I call our personal algorithm bubble. Our hyper interests. Think partisan politics, anti-vaxxers, schnauzer-doodle breeding clubs and the like. Our social media and recommended entertainment algorithms have already crammed us into our little bubbles in so many aspects of life, why not for our learning too?
At the end of the day then, I think my little place in the world is safe for now. I wouldn’t argue our world is necessarily getting stupider, like many people like to think. I instead think our learning has become very specific and particular to ourselves. And as the Jeopardy! guy in the room I’ll take that just fine. But really, do you have to keep asking me about the weather? It’s one swipe away people. One swipe.