Getting hold of knowledge is harder than we think. Most of what a search engine returns is information, and it’s our job to piece it together and generate knowledge: facts and things we know.
Google is really, really good at giving you information and lots of it. But, on average, how many of us click more than one link from the first five results? How many of us honestly take snippets from multiple sources and reason our own judgements?
In making it easy to get to information, Google has made itself a primary source of knowledge nutrition. But it is, at best, a fast-food restaurant: highly operationalised basic sustenance.
And it’s bad to rely on these behemoths. Most people don’t eat only at McDonald’s. So why feed our brains, our arguments, our faculties of reasoning, on a similar giant?
When I was product manager for GOV.UK’s site search engine, I set the team a project to learn more about how search engines work. For one week, they had to change their main search provider from Google to something else. Bing, Baidu, Dogpile, DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, or anything else. At the end of the week we talked about what was harder or took more effort, the features they missed from Google, and whether they wanted to carry on using that provider.
Some people said yes, some people switched back to Google, but all of us learned how to find things in a different way. We had to actively engage our epistemological faculties and work with a corpus.
Since then I’ve been using DuckDuckGo every day because I like the way it works. It reminds me of the early web, around 2002, a time when AltaVista and AskJeeves were big names in web search. Back then you’d fall into rabbit holes, starting on one page and diving through links, resurfacing to open up another, related rabbit hole by searching again. We built up information this way. You’d be delighted at what you found sometimes, learning something you hadn’t expected to find.
That pursuit of digging into a topic and building up your own knowledge base is losing ground to instant gratification. Voice assistants, in taking away the hassle of having to read, could take it away all together.
How might we make our own information-gathering Michelin starred? What skills do we need to refresh or relearn?
These habits of mind – how we weigh up information and find truth – are helpful in many places. Not only in our work projects but also, most critically, at the ballot box.
“We do not and cannot gain knowledge by passively recording reality in declarative sentences, as if we were baskets ready to be filled; instead, we must handle it interactively.” – Luciano Floridi
Some things that inspired this post: Matt Webb’s 15 rules for blogging; Motherboard’s piece on popular culture as an information conduit and nuclear energy influencer Isodope; and The New Atlantis on whether search engines make us gullible.
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