Friday, October 03, 2008

Google, then and now

For Google's tenth birthday, they created a way to search their oldest available index, from January 2001. I did a few vanity searches to see the difference over the past seven years. The results:

Search for "al hsu":
in 2001: 70 results
in 2008: 13,800 results

Search for "albert y. hsu":
in 2001: 1 result
in 2008: 9,120 results

Search for "suburban christian":
in 2001: 368 results
in 2008: 22,700 results

So the Web has grown quite a bit in the last few years. No wonder I can't keep up with everything anymore. I also can't imagine life without Google. I use it basically every day, looking things up, fact checking, etc. I remember when I was an editorial intern in 1994 or '95, I actually called a museum to fact check something. And for a grad school media class, I had to go to the physical offices of a cable TV company to look up original air dates of a TV show season and episodes. Can't imagine doing that today.

The Atlantic recently wondered if Google is making us stupid. I wonder how Google is changing how people interact with information in general and books in particular. Not only are we less likely to look things up in a print book when we can just search Google or Wikipedia, it's also probably true that we're less likely to have the capacity for sustained analysis and argument because we've gotten used to short blog posts and snippets of information. I think it's significant that many blog entries I see are short quotes of a few sentences or paragraphs lifted from books - they might have nuggets of insight or wisdom, but they're isolated from the larger context or point that the book was making.

As I've gotten into my precourse readings for my grad school classes (after twelve years away from formal coursework), I've been finding it challenging to carve out the time for book-length reading and study. And even in my daily work, where I'm working on book manuscripts all the time, I find myself constantly distracted by this or that little thing that somebody posts or links to on Facebook.

And Google has completely changed the whole notion of research. In the mid-'90s, For my master's thesis/first book, I was almost completely dependent on the physical library, books and journals for research. A decade later, for my suburban book, I had no end of leads, ideas and material from around the world, instantaneously available via Google. But the sheer amount of stuff was overwhelming, and it was hard to know what to sift through and go after. Call it the law of unintended consequences. Google has been great for access to info, but we are all completely swamped, distracted and ADD as a result.

(I'd say more, but this post might already be longer than anybody cares to read.)

1 comment:

Helen said...

In college they still taught us how to use the library, but they also added internet skills. In high school we had to have a book, a magazine, etc on all research, and never depend solely on the Internet. I think those were good ideas, and I hope they continue to do that in school. As a book lover, I don't ever want physical books and libraries to go away (While it is a very slim chance, I could see actual printed books slowing the point they disappear. But that's SLIM. and way in the future)