For God's sake, Google it.

by aaronb505 min read10th Aug 202115 comments

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Anti-disclaimer: this is not an ad for Google. Feel free to use DuckDuckGo or whatever floats your boat.

Intro

I’ve noticed a peculiar pattern in my blog posts: the more original I consider a post, the less interesting it seems to everyone else—at least as measured by page views and Reddit comments. Scroll to the bottom of my “top posts” list, and you’ll find a bunch of posts explaining insights that I—and I alone, apparently—thought were super interesting and important. The winner in this regard is “Clearer Thinking on Collective Action,” with a grand total of 26 page views—about 3% that of “Some things I’ve learned in college.”

With this in mind, let me present perhaps my most banal and utterly unoriginal idea to date.

Google it.

If anyone is the type of person to use Google, it’s me. I’m pretty technologically literate, use the internet often, and enjoy learning new skills and information. I’m also not exactly a social butterfly who will go out of his way to ask something of another human. Despite all this, I find myself regularly spinning my wheels, wasting precious time and energy trying to find the answer to a question like it was 1921 instead of 2021. That is, by trial, error, and intuition-guided exploration.

Eventually, upon exhausting my intrinsic motivation to find out “on my own,” I mope over to the next tab on my browser like a sheepish schoolchild to ask Google what to do. Lo and behold, virtually all of the time, an answer on the first page of search results is well beyond satisfactory.

The internet is amazing

In my progress studies/econ nerd/techologist information ecosystem, there are a bunch of highbrow takes about how the internet is either bad or not as good as it should be. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” said Peter Thiel. Despite near-universal access to unprecedented amounts of information, economic growth since the rise of the internet has been lackluster at best, a phenomenon known as “secular stagnation.” Social media companies attract our best and brightest students away from socially-productive endeavors with the promise of comfortable salaries and free nitro cold brew in an ultra-aesthetic office—students who go on to design attention-monetization algorithms that erode our cognitive and emotional wellbeing.

These points are all true (I wrote them, after all), but let’s not forget one basic fact: the internet is incredible. And by ‘incredible,’ I mean literally incredible*:*

The internet may not substantially improve our quality of life (does it?), but the sheer amount of information it has to offer quite literally defies intuition and understanding.

Before my nth-degree great grandfather back in the savanna chiseled a spearhead, he had to figure out how to do it. Even my parents’ generation, for much of their lives, had to expend some reasonable degree of effort to find the answer to a question or learn how to do something for the first time. This meant asking a friend or family member, walking to the library and reading a book, or just playing around until something worked.

We Zoomers are the first generation since a prokaryotic cell bubbled out of the primordial ooze to have such an astronomical cornucopia of knowledge at our fingertips. My claim, then, is that we have neither biologically nor culturally evolved to take advantage of such a tool. That’s why I regularly find myself answering a question in less than one minute thanks to Google after wasting five, ten, or thirty minutes trying to answer it “on my own.”

Gradually, I’ve come to realize that I must affirmatively remind myself to ask the Great Internet Oracle instead of relying on one of those old-school analog methods. This is true even when the task I’m trying to figure out is on the computer.

What’s going on

I think this experience—and those like it—can be explained by a combination of the sunk cost fallacy, the psychological power of habit, and our innate desire and instinct to form social bonds.

The sunk cost fallacy acts as the “push” factor, turning already-expended effort into dysfunctional motivation to do more of the same. Habit, on the other hand, serves as the “pull” factor, greasing the wheels of whatever you happen to be doing.

Two humans are smarter than one

Another reason for Google Neglect is that Googling something doesn’t feel like talking to a person, something people usually enjoy. And, in most ways, it isn’t like talking to a person.

You’re not going to form a friendship with a pseudonymous StackExchange member by reading his posts, and you’re not going to get the personal fulfillment that comes from solving a problem with somebody else. I in no way want to negate the benefits of human interaction by adopting a naive, techno-misanthropic stance. Human interaction is good!

But, when it comes to solving relatively non-complex (though not necessarily easy) problems, Google is an enormously efficient tool for aggregating the wisdom of all ~8 billion of us. If you need to figure out how to tie a tie or launch a Python notebook or clean a grass stain, you probably can’t do better than the world’s most linked to websites on the matter, presented to you by Google’s algorithm in about four milliseconds.

Despite all this, I don’t think “asking people instead of the internet” is the main culprit here. In my personal experience, people spend a lot of time toiling away even in solitude before turning to another person or the internet for help.

Google Neglect neglect

As a final telling anecdote, I’ll admit that it took me this long just to Google “just Google it” to see what the internet had to say on the matter. Though not trying to solve a problem or answer a question per se, I surely owe it to myself to investigate just how unoriginal my point is, and you’d think that writing an entire post about Google Neglect would have made me open a new tab and find out.

Lo and behold, the first search result is a delightfully sardonic website called Let Me Google That For You, a passive aggressive way of responding to a question with “f*** off.”

Conclusion

With that in mind, let me declare my non-intention to be an asshole about everything. I’m not writing this piece to lament about parasitic luddites who waste *my* precious time by refusing to Google something and asking me instead. In fact, when this happens, I selfishly appreciate the opportunity to leverage technological arbitrage to get credit and satisfaction out of helping another person.

No, I’m writing this because I think that virtually all of us, me included, could avoid a bit of quotidian frustration and inefficiency by more frequently utilizing one of the world’s most useful tools. So, whether you’re trying to open a stubborn jar lid, deciding whether to capitalize the names of astronomical bodies, or contemplating whether that in-person mid-pandemic event is too risky, do yourself a favor and Google it.

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15 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:20 PM
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Your brain is like a muscle: if you don't use it you lose it. I'm afraid google is doing to our brains (and memory in particular) what sedentarity is doing to our muscles. Before I google something, I ask these questions:

  • is it important?
  • can I remember it if I try for 2 minutes?

Yesterday I was trying to replay a tune in my head. I couldn't find some part, so I was tempted to youtube it. Then I realized I was starting to build a compulsion to check up everything and anything as soon as I had a shred of doubt. I stopped myself. The tune came back by itself a while later.

I think this is a reasonable concern, but it seems a little reminiscent of the way that people back in Ancient Greece worried that reading and writing would stop people's memories working. Here's Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus, pretending to be an ancient Egyptian responding to Thoth's invention of writing:

And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Maybe that did happen, in some sense -- people in purely oral cultures are allegedly very good at remembering long things verbatim -- but given how human civilization has progressed since the invention of writing, it seems unlikely that it was a bad thing for the overall cognitive capacities of the human race. If the internet is doing something similar, it might likewise turn out fine on balance.

(Epistemic status of this paragraph: baseless handwavy speculation.) If you don't use a muscle, it shrinks and there's no tendency for other muscles to get stronger to replace it. I'm not sure that's quite how it works with the brain; I think less-used bits of brain get used for other things. So it could be the case (1) that having the internet always available makes us less good at remembering the sort of thing one can find on the internet but (2) that this in turn lets other things recruit the bits of brain we'd have used for that, leaving us -- at least when the internet is at our fingertips -- more capable mentally, not less. Of course there are lots of caveats. I don't know how effectively one mental faculty can substitute for another in brain usage. Even if this effect is real, the cost in fragility (what if a big nuclear war wipes out the internet? what if you get convicted of some cybercrime and are told you're not allowed network access for the next 10 years? what if an injury of some sort makes internet use suddenly much harder or less effective for you?) might outweigh it. It could be that some valuable mental abilities depend on having things in our heads rather than outside and that we're lazily crippling those. Etc.

Both your and aaronb50's counterpoints seem reasonable. I think it's obvious that google makes us more knoweledgeable overall. But I also have a general tendency to believe that the first generation to adopt a new technology are the most prone to fall into all sorts of excesses and traps, before the next generation manages to learn from their parent's failures. So my go-to with a new technology is "a cautious emthusiasm". As you suggest in your 3 examples, I think there can be something as "too reliant on google".

Fair enough, this might be a good counterargument though I'm very unsure. How much do mundane "brain workouts" matter? Tentatively, the lack of efficacy of brain training programs like Luminosity would suggest that they might not be doing much.

I used to think the same way, and I still google things a lot, but at some point I had the vivid impression that the "Google Oracle" had been compromised or seriously deteriorated in quality.

If I want to find a particular product on Amazon, or a particular game on Steam, Google will pretty much always find it. But if there's no straightforward way to make money off of answering my question (or at least that's my impression), then Google will usually try to answer a similar-sounding question instead, one somebody could make money off of.

Some consequences: Idiosyncratic questions get banal answers to similar-sounding but uninteresting questions. Any questions about product comparisons are answered by pages upon pages of auto-generated product comparisons (which are usually crap) full of affiliate links to Amazon, irrespective of which product features I asked about and whether they're even mentioned in the "answers". Any medical questions (like "Is X unhealthy?") are routed towards useless websites like WebMD. Lifestyle questions are answered by pages upon pages of essentially the same article written by different writers, all providing the same answer based on Institutional Common Sense or the same source material; often there's no diversity of opinion in sight. And so on.

I'm curious why we experience search engines so differently - maybe we ask different questions, or we have different expectations or something, but my personal impression is that Google used to be the Oracle you mentioned, but that it lost its powers to Goodharting years ago.

Addendum: There's lots of discussion of this post on the SSC subreddit, including several claims that Googling has gotten worse.

e.g.: "The thing that's rather shocking to me is how bad Google has gotten at understanding a highly-specific and detailed search."

I’ve noticed a peculiar pattern in my blog posts: the more original I consider a post, the less interesting it seems to everyone else—at least as measured by page views and Reddit comments.

Occasionally I publish a blog post I consider to be blindingly obvious, only to discover it's actually heretical.

Yes - if not heretical, at least interesting to other people! I'm going to lean into the "blogging about things that seem obvious to me" thing now. 

I come up blank on a regular basis when thinking about the usefulness of sharing something. 
Useful content tends to teach me a model or enable me to built one. 

  • Unexpectedly useful content extends a model the writer didn't know the reader had or fills a conceptual hole of the readers model.
  • Unexpectedly useless content tries to teach about something the reader already has a good model for.

I'd love to have even a bad heuristic (for not totally obvious cases) of this problem.

 

I generally agree with the sentiment, but in some cases I've found asking people for help is more effective since

a) they can give you specific assistance relative to your situation.

b) you can ask them follow up questions if you get stuck.

For example I live in an area where the developer built 50 identical houses. I'd much rather ask the neighbors how they did a DIY project than google, because I know their experience is directly relevant to me.

Good point; complex, real world questions/problems are often not Googleable, but I suspect a lot of time is spent dealing with mundane, relatively non-complex problems. Even in your example, I bet there is something useful to be learned from Googling "DIY cabinet instructions" or whatever. 

Thanks for the interesting post.

 

We Zoomers

It may be relevant to say I am 27 before answering.

 

I think I am on the other side of the spectrum, at least 95% of the time when I have a question, the first thing I do is googling it. Same thing when people say statistics that seem weird or counter-intuitive or when I need to feel more confident about my arguments on a subject. I have noticed however that most of my friends don't do it. It sometimes annoys people that I consistently check things.

Maybe this has to do with the fact that I am a PhD and used to spending hours researching. However, I was less inclined to search on Google when writing my thesis. By the end of it I found out it was actually a very good starting point to find the most interesting sources, a bit like the way you should start on Wikipedia but not stop there.

I sometimes wonder if this "dependence" is a good thing but, like you, I think the tool is too powerful to forget to use it.

Interesting, but I think you're way at the tail end of the distribution on this one. I bet I use Google more than 90%+ of people, but still not as much as I should.

My rule of thumb is that if I'm in a conversation, I'll ask for clarification instead of googling whatever term they just used. If they don't know, or they have a question, then my first stop is google. It does take a certain skill level to know when it's more efficient to ask someone, and knowing how to phrase questions is apparently difficult for people who didn't grow up learning how to program.

I find that this means I get the social benefits of conversion, and when I actually care about the answer, I get it without wasting time.