First published April 6, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
It was a sad day in the Hotchkiss household. While doing her homework, my 12-year-old daughter, Alanna, had a question. Until now, she always asked me, her father. This time, she went straight to Google. The 10-year-old, Lauren, is already heading in the same direction. I’m sensing the old days may never return.
Being in a somewhat philosophical mood (I have the time, now that I don’t have to answer questions about pH balances and what a litmus test is) I pondered the implications of this. If there’s a box that always has the right answers, what does this mean for our society? How will having instant access to the absolute authority on everything impact us?
Will the Web kill our research attention span?
If you’re of my generation, researching something in school meant heading for the library, discovering that another classmate already had the volume of World Book you were looking for, then digging into the alternatives. Remember the periodical index? You would look up topics in there, to see which magazines had published articles. It always seemed that the best articles were in Scientific American. When I was lucky enough to actually find the issue I was looking for, I would try to decipher an article that was way above my head, looking for my answers. Perseverance was a key factor here, as it was no minor task to follow the threads from article to article, wade through the verbiage and gradually piece together the information I was looking for.
Most times, I never found exactly what I was looking for. I would assemble a construct of related information, and would usually make inferences based on this that would find their way into my various reports. Of course, you would have to cite your sources for that teacher that everyone despised; the one with no life outside the classroom, who would actually take the time to check those sources out and try to trip you up.
But during this arduous process, I learned some lessons that have served me well. I discovered the sheer joy of acquiring knowledge, even if it wasn’t directly related to my quest at the time. I gained the detective skills needed for the research required when the answers weren’t easily at hand. And I probably improved my reading skills by at least one or two grade levels.
Today, in the era of keyword search, answers are given out in bite sized-dollops. They quickly rise to the top from their hiding places, burrowed deep within the dense text on an academic Web site, ferreted out by the probing eye of the search engine. Within seconds, my daughter can find exactly what she’s looking for, conveniently highlighted for her.
In doing a number of usability tests, it’s becoming clear that we don’t assimilate information online the same way we do on a written page. We scan for clusters of words, and avoid large blocks of text. The Web page is not the place for studious reading, but rather a quick search-and-destroy mission, getting in, getting what you’re looking for from a heading, a bulleted list or a caption, and getting out again.
I’ve looked over the shoulder of my daughters as they do their homework (they hate it as much as you might guess) and they go straight for the obvious on a Web site. I look at all the other wonderful paths of discovery that lay just one click away, and ask them why they don’t follow them. Their answer? “But this was what I was looking for!” Are we making it all too easy?
Wisdom without the social interaction
For thousands of years, people have passed along wisdom to people. Whether it’s formal education, apprenticeships or parenting, the transference of knowledge has always taken place in a social and personal context. Knowledge was colored and tempered by personal experience and insight. Also, this process helped build our social skills, engendered respect for elders and helped provide a relevant framework with which to apply to newly acquired expertise. We were taught, we were shown, we were inspired and we were nurtured. Today, we’re just informed.
Much as I love Web search, there’s nothing very social about the process. There’s no one to help you apply what you learn. There’s no one to lend the additional insight of their own experience. Answers obtained through a search engine are detached, impersonal, and sometimes, just plain wrong. Are we trading something tremendously valuable for the ease and immediacy of getting our answers online?
Instant answers without the context of “expertise”
As hard as it was to get answers in the pre-Internet days, there was something to be said for the slow steeping in of knowledge. As we poured through encyclopedias and magazines, textbooks and reports, looking for the answers that were hidden just out of sight, we unknowingly gathered a broader expertise on the topics we were researching. This came out of necessity. Finding the answers meant you had to dig through the information surrounding them. You followed paths that were sometimes red herrings, and sometimes wonderful journeys of exploration. The lack of shortcuts made the longer trek necessary, and often, worthwhile. Today, many years later, I still marvel at the basic and simple beauty of Bernoulli’s Principle, what Gregor Mendel did in his pea patch, and the mysteries that lie locked in DNA. I didn’t have the advantage of an animated multimedia presentation, but somehow, 30 years later, the knowledge has stuck. The answers weren’t easy, but they were satisfying.
I hope my daughters have a chance to experience this, too.