Until the age of fourteen I shared a room with my younger brother. We decorated the walls with every type of map and lined our shelves with books. The first birthday gift my grandmother ever gave me was a National Geographic Atlas of the World, 7th Edition, from which, perhaps, along with my father’s interest in them, sprung my love for maps. It was a wonderful thing, then, when I was introduced to Google Earth. In the beginning, Google Earth was the ultimate toy: explore the Grand Canyon, Mt. St. Helens, Rome, Moscow, London, the Alps, Mt. Everest. My brother and I would spend our half-hour of screen time “flying the airplane” over the vast terrain that makes up this planet. My goodness was it exciting.
One moment several weeks ago, it hit me: I haven’t looked a word up in a dictionary in… I don’t know… years? Google has been there for most of my life. I know how to use a dictionary, of course, I just haven’t often bothered to do so. Lug the thing out, flip through the guide-words, and finally find it, the word you’re searching for, nestled in there among the others of its kin. How long had it been since I looked through an encyclopedia or sought out a specific book or subject in a library? Had something been lost along the way?
As a young boy I recall loving the Encyclopedia Britannica. Thirty-two volumes in all their glory, occupying our lowest shelf. I would play with marbles on our library rug, and when I finished page through the Britannica. One time, as I paged through the Fs, I came across fascism. Unfamiliar with and uninterested in the political ideology that spawned some of the most dreadful dictators of all time, I looked at the diagram in the second column. The image depicted a fasces, a symbolic axe carried by generals at the time of the Roman Republic to symbolize strength through unity. I remember this one instance in particular because it was this knowledge, of the origin of the term “fascism,” that allowed me to more readily understand it when I was taught about Mussolini and Hitler years later.
Wikipedia offers many of the same opportunities to learn new things as the Britannica did. With internal links, Wikipedia lets you jump from one article to another effortlessly. In middle school, we employed this tactic in a game called Jesus. The goal of the game was simple: get from one given Wikipedia article to the one about Jesus using only the internal links. Brazil → Rio de Janeiro → Cristo Redentor → Jesus Christ. What harm could it do to have all the world’s information readily accessible? Well, a lot it seems.
Ready access to information has lessened the amount of knowledge we need to retain for day-to-day life, but at the same time made us feel a great deal smarter. Why bother memorizing the circumference of the earth (twenty-four thousand miles) when you have a library in your pocket? Google also decreases human interaction. If you ask a friend, “Hey, do you know who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars?” their response is as likely to be “Why don’t you Google it?” as it is to be “Yeah, it was Mark Hamill.” Lastly, the Web has increased stress and decreased productivity (though it has in other ways allowed for greater productivity and access to stress-relief solutions). Wasting time on social media, surfing the web,and taking BuzzFeed quizzes, et cetera costs companies “billions of dollars per year,”  and the increased use of the Web has been shown to increase loneliness and depression in what psychologists call the “internet stress paradox”.
We have the problem: people are over-reliant on Google, easily accessed resources, social media, and the Web in general. Technology is a beautiful thing that has helped improve life on this planet exponentially, but we shouldn’t let it absorb every function of our daily lives, for with the ability to explore the globe with a single click, some intangible appreciation for the unknown has been lost. The best solution, I believe, is a simple, conscious moderation. Just stop Googling everything!
To Be Continued
(Copyright 2017 Tys Sweeney)