For God's sake, Google it.
Anti-disclaimer: this is not an ad for Google. Feel free to use DuckDuckGo or whatever floats your boat.
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.
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.”
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.
I would reckon, at this point, I’ve somewhat evolved up to making use of google as an extension (perhaps a replacement? Oh dear) of my brain. Certainly it is the place to go to for anything mathematical, which just doesn’t stick in my mind the same way textual knowledge does. People have always used formula sheets - now we’ve got formula sheets that explain how to do it.
Likely, btw, as regards what is viewed or not, the more original things are, the less they have in common with our main interests. I suspect, secretly, (or not so secretly) we all just want the same basic articles retreading the familiar and highly charged. Angry clickbait articles always grab people’s attention. Works even for the middle of the road types like Matt Yglesias too - the ones that get the most attention are swatting down the excesses of somebody.