As I got my hair cut this morning, I caught a 30-second ad spot for CarGurus.com called The Detective. It’s about a year old, but since I don’t watch much live TV these days, I hadn’t seen it yet. Here’s a quick breakdown:
A woman walks into what looks like a home office. Her significant other is standing still, studying an oversized pin board chock full of pictures, notes, and drawings of vehicles. “I’ve finally figured out what car to get,” he informs her, “now, where to find the best deal…” The camera pivots to a side wall, covered in a huge map with more notes, printouts, and a spider’s web of yarn connecting papers with various places on the map. The scene is meant to look like the office of a zealous detective working on a complex murder case. Although exaggerated to make a point, we are meant to understand that the man has clearly done his research and spent a lot of time thinking about their next car. “You know, why don’t I help?” says the woman, pulling out her smartphone. “What’s that?” the man inquires. “CarGurus,” she says, asking him what color he wants. Within a few seconds, she pulls up a Ford Escape with low miles, a great price, and a top-notch dealer rating. “Whew, I’m beat,” she jokes, turning to leave. The man looks back at his research, bewildered and deflated. “Let’s do it your way then,” he mutters. “I heard that,” the woman says.
Now I know TV spots are designed to be humorous, but underneath the humor, there’s a point being made. The ad suggests we skip the hard work of research and reflection and turn to our smartphone to find the information we need. Don’t spend days painstakingly pouring over every purchasing factor in buying a new car, says CarGurus. Get the same result in just a few clicks of our app! But, as I’m trying to teach my children right now, learning is a journey and research is a process. Getting immediate answers to our questions from our smartphone sounds attractive, but it promotes intellectual laziness and entitlement. We stop thinking for ourselves and learn to trust tech companies to make decisions for us. The take-away of this ad, and others like it promoting online or mobile solutions to life’s daily problems, is that careful, time-consuming research is old-school and foolish and that with a few taps of your smartphone, you can achieve the same thing. But is it the same? Without the journey, does what we learn almost immediately via our smartphones have the same mental impact on us? Can we retain it and use it as long? Or does the term easy come, easy go apply to our brains as well?
Robert A. Bjork, the director of the Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA, says learning needs to have difficulty to be effective. “The more students have to exert their mental muscles to learn a concept or recall an idea, the stronger their memory and learning will become.” Couple this with the well-researched theory that repetition is the foundation of all learning and we realize that the man in the ad seems closer to genuine learning and illumination than the woman and therefore better equipped to make a decision about their next car.
Andrew, aren’t you taking all this a little too seriously? I mean, it’s just a used car site. What’s wrong with speeding up the process and making a quick decision? Well, as I said, the man’s intense research as projected in the ad is an exaggeration. Most people wouldn’t go to that extent. The point is that his efforts are depicted as silly and the smartphone app is depicted as the smart route. Am I saying people need to spend months pouring over paperwork and pictures before they decide on a car? No! Life is too short. But it’s also too short to short-change yourself in the learning process. By all means use the technology at your disposal to speed up the search and gather information. But don’t trust one app to do in a few seconds what would naturally take longer if done carefully and effectively. And that goes for anything you are seeking an answer to, any project you are working on. Don’t trust Google because it’s fast and easy. Do yourself the service of seeking out more than one source. Any good historian will remind you that the full story – the truth – can only be garnered by finding and evaluating multiple sources. Careful searching, done over time to allow for reflection, delivers the best results. No app, smartphone, or tech company can do that for you.
Write to me with your thoughts. Have you seen this kind of ad on TV lately? How is your smartphone affecting the way you learn things? How do you research before making a major purchase decision?