Google, Thamus, And How Smart We Think We Are

A new study indicates that having access to an unlimited amount of information on Google has had a two-fold effect. First, we don’t remember as much as we once needed to. Yet, second, we think we’re more knowledgeable than we actually are or ever were:

Browsing the internet for information gives people a “widely inaccurate” view of their own intelligence and could lead to over-confidence when making decisions, experts warn.

In a series of experiments, participants who had searched for information on the internet believed they were far more knowledgeable about a subject than those who had learned by normal routes, such as reading a book or talking to a tutor. Internet users also believed their brains were sharper.

This problem has been explored before, even concerning “normal routes” for learning. In Neil Postman’s enlightening book Technopoly, Postman explores the give and take that all technology involves. Even simple technology like writing has an impact on the information we choose to internalize.

To illustrate his point, Postman quotes extensively from Socrates’ Phaedrus, which retells the story of Thamus, an Egyptian king, and Theuth, the inventor of writing. Thamus’ critique of writing sounds like a modern Luddite’s censure of the internet:

You [Theuth], who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function [Theuth claimed that writing would aid memory and increase wisdom]. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.((Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 4.))

What could be said of writing in the days of Socrates applies doubly or triply so for this internet age. Google is Theuth’s greatest invention yet. It has proved to be a fantastic tool. If this study is any indication, Google has also made tools of many of us as well.