How to search in the Age of Google

When was the last time you searched for information? I mean really searched, not the instant-information-download-from-Google routine. When did you last set foot in a library and hunt for an answer? Can you remember opening a paper map to figure out how to get somewhere? If you’re like many of us, the answer is probably not recently. The word search is defined as a careful investigation. As a verb, it means to look through carefully, to explore. It comes from the Latin words circare, to go about, wander, or traverse, and circus, or circle. To search, then, is to journey from one point to another in search of something. It may lead us to a new place, or, as poet T.S. Eliot puts it, we may “arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” But does the technology we use today allow us to make that journey when we search? Or are we given an “answer” without really going anywhere? And without the journey, can we really call it our answer?

In his book Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations, Nicholas Carr gathers the best of his blog writing into one collection. In “The Searchers,” written January 2013, Carr shows us how Google began changing from a company that originally helped spur exploration of the world wide web to one that subverts the act of searching by keeping us inside a personalized echo chamber fueled by a vast array of data points and secret algorithms. Carr defines a search as “open-ended, an act of exploration that takes us out into the world, beyond the self, in order to know the world, and the self, a little better.” Instead, he tells us Google is working to develop “personalized, preemptive information delivery: search without searching.” The more companies like Google can know about us and what we are looking for, the more they can provide us with what they think is the answer. Starting and ending our search with Google shortens or eliminates the journey, and we sacrifice the experience of going from one place to another in favor of efficiency and convenience. In short, we lose out on the quest. Pearson, the largest educational publisher in the world, describes learning this way:

Learning isn’t a destination…It’s a never-ending road of discovery, challenge, inspiration, and wonder…Because wherever learning flourishes, so do people.

So how do we search in the Age of Google? Here are five tips to get you started.

First, practice patience. It’s easy to gratify your questions and desires instantly these days. But the old saying “easy come, easy go” holds true for knowledge too. Googling an answer right away may satisfy an itch to know something or find an answer on the spot, but since little effort was put into the process, it’s a short-term gain that won’t stick mentally for long. If you are patient, and you turn the question, problem, or desire to know something into a process instead of an instant product, you’ll be rewarded with a journey that will create lasting, meaningful learning in your brain.

Second, don’t trust one source. When it comes to learning about something, you’ve got options. While a search engine or online encyclopedia may be a convenient first place to turn, you should see it as merely a starting point. From there, you can turn to other resources, either online or in person, to consult books on the subject, periodical articles, websites, interviews, media content, and more, to flesh out and expand your understanding. Remember, virtually every source of information is subjective; that is, it comes with intentional or unintentional bias. And nowadays, even the algorithms that bring us many sources of information can be influenced by human biases, stereotypes, and shortcomings. Explore a variety of sources – first-hand accounts, big-picture analyses, histories, poetry, stories, encyclopedia entries, songs, academic articles, journalistic accounts, etc. Generally, if something is true, it will be corroborated by multiple sources. And beyond that, differing perspectives will deepen your understanding – appreciate them.

Third, dig out your library card. You may not have it any more or you may never have secured one, but library cards are your free pass to a wealth of information and resources. Take a trip to your local library and get one. Then enjoy access to paper books, audio books, e-books, magazines, newspapers, videos, computers, microfilm, reference books, free events, and a water fountain. Because searching is thirsty work. And don’t forget your library has a website and probably an app too.

Fourth, make your new-found knowledge yours. This is personal. According to educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, the first few levels of learning are remembering and understanding. Help your brain do this by taking notes, the first step to making information yours. The higher forms of learning in Bloom’s taxonomy are analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Take time to review and reflect on what you are learning. This will help you analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the material. Play with it, like kids mold play-doh into fun shapes. Probe it and question it. Compare it. Relate it to what you already know. Doing all this helps you internalize and solidify what you learn. In short, it becomes part of you.

Lastly, share what you learn with others or create something brand new. Now that you’ve reached the end of your search, with new knowledge and perhaps wisdom as your prize, share it with others. This is how the world learns. We all learn from others before us and around us. If something is worth learning, it is worth sharing. You can also take what you find or learn and create something new using it.

When it comes to the search for information, truth, wisdom, or just how to fix your vacuum cleaner, don’t skip out on the journey. It will take more time and effort, but you’ll boost your brain health and you’ll learn to be thankful for the chance to improve your life, even if it just means having a clean living room floor.

This post was also published at Mind Matters, a publication of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

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