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Are we googling ourselves stupid?
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Are we googling ourselves stupid?

If one believes recent intelligence research studies, then the use of today’s digital information channels is not making us any smarter – on the contrary, we are becoming stupid. This is, of course, a sweeping statement, but the gist of it may be true. A provocative theory from popular science suggests that people living in today’s digital society cannot match the intellectual standards of antiquity. If, for example, a citizen of ancient Greece were to visit us by travelling through time, he would be far superior intellectually, more imaginative and have a better memory.

This is not as unlikely as it at first seems; after all, the Pythagorean Theorem was discovered and developed at a beach on Samos roughly 2,500 years ago. There were no search engines, no Wikipedia, and no explanatory videos on YouTube. Great thinkers depended solely on their ingenuity and the knowledge they had stored away in their grey matter.

Were the ancient Greeks more intelligent? A recent article in Der Spiegel investigated this question. In former analogue times, knowledge was acquired mainly through reflection, empirical verification and direct instruction by a teacher. How do we acquire knowledge today, in the digital era? Does the following statement still apply? »You don’t really need to know anything, you just need to know where to look« – i.e. what’s the best search term to use in Google? Is Mr Google the measure of all things? Is he the saviour of the modern world? Incidentally, there are also other search engines, such as Ecosia, the »green« option.

The protagonist in Plato’s dialogues – Socrates – demonstrates eloquently with his unique rhetorical style that the acquisition of knowledge is a constant process that takes place in the mind. It is a process that can only be conducted by thinking for oneself. It is an active process, not a passive assimilation of information. Socrates didn’t go out and explain everything to his fellow citizens, he bombarded with questions, which they answered in a dialogue with him. This allowed them to gain new insights. Socrates only functioned as a »midwife« (Greek: »Maieutik«). According to this view, the acquisition of knowledge is an active process of reflection. It indicates that knowledge is not gained by simply absorbing information passively; it must be processed. Over and over again. Information that is constantly available and can be googled at any time is not yet knowledge.

Of course, the question always arises as to what knowledge actually is. When we download or stream information (podcasts, YouTube videos, etc.), we have by no means yet gained any knowledge. But when do we become knowledgeable? When we are able to repeat a piece of information at will? When we can recite Schiller’s »Glocke« from memory? Is knowledge a static entity? Is it not rather essentially fleeting by nature? The phenomenon also occurs that someone is regarded to be a walking encyclopaedia and yet cannot make the appropriate connections – that their knowledge is »dead«.

A sea of information – and we are only swimming on the surface.

When one considers today’s almost unlimited possibilities to acquire knowledge by comparison to ancient times, we are confronted by an equally unlimited, overwhelming glut of information. In his book »Deep Work«, Cal Newport argues that today, in a world full of distractions, we no longer immerse ourselves in our work. We are no longer able to explore a topic extensively because we are accustomed to jumping from one topic to the next in a very short time. We stagger mindlessly about, leaping from one argument to the next, and never really get to the bottom of anything – unless we are scientists by profession.

According to this theory, an ordinary citizen of antiquity would probably be intellectually superior to people today. It’s an interesting, but also very provocative theory. It hardly seems credible when one considers the wealth of knowledge that is accessible to everyone through the internet. With so much human knowledge, and after so much progress and development, can we really be less intelligent now than the people 2,500 years ago? It’s hard to believe.

Nevertheless, a person from antiquity might be intellectually superior because he or she had a different way of acquiring knowledge and approached problems differently, thus finding more creative solutions. What matters is not the amount of information that is theoretically available, but the knowledge that is available in practice – that has really been assimilated. It also depends on the way in which the available information is used. These days, almost no one can recite the pages of a book from memory, but in former times, learning knowledge by heart was common practice. Nowadays, we quickly perform a search on Google and have already forgotten the information a minute later. The wealth of information that is constantly available everywhere through digital media does not find its way into our store of knowledge. It dries up on the way to our long-term memory. This is confirmed by the intelligence research studies conducted by scientists that were mentioned at the beginning of this article, according to which our short-term memory is improving, and our long-term memory is deteriorating.

Knowledge has to be processed.

Socrates is an excellent example of the huge discrepancy that exists between the analogue world of antiquity and the digital world of today in terms of the concept of knowledge: Knowledge can only be gained through personal experience and reflection, not by googling. As a teacher, Socrates didn’t feed knowledge to his students from the outside; he made it available to them through guided independent reflection. He transferred knowledge in direct dialogue between two people. This is a completely different way of acquiring knowledge than we are accustomed to today. One could also compare it to procuring food: In times gone by, people had to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow, cut it up and prepare it, but today you simply order saddle of venison with cranberries – maybe even just with a mouse click or by tapping on a screen. The same applies to the acquisition of knowledge. The question is as follows: If one can so easily access supposed knowledge – i.e. information – and assimilate it simply by reading and listening, is it real knowledge? Or is it some kind of »instant knowledge«?

Borrowed knowledge from streamed information.

Strictly speaking, we do not have the information that is always available in the digital world. We stream information, but we don’t internalise anything. Just as we don’t own streamed music, we don’t possess knowledge. We only borrow knowledge. Streaming alone is not enough; we have to do something in order to transform information into knowledge.

A phenomenon that everyone is familiar with makes it clear that knowledge requires effort: When we record new information in writing, it is easier to remember than when we hear it or read it theoretically, through virtual media. If we write something down, knowledge forms more quickly. If we don’t, it immediately evaporates, like a volatile solution in a chemistry class. However, since we rarely write out the information that we are constantly obtaining from digital media, it becomes difficult to acquire knowledge. Information quickly evaporates if it isn’t transferred to a solid form, i.e. if it isn’t processed by the recipient. An analogy from the animal kingdom: If a toad is given a dead fly as food, it will not eat it – the toad has to engage in a process to obtain its food; it wants to have living prey.

Knowledge cannot be streamed.

Are we still hunters and gatherers when it comes to acquiring knowledge? Many people are passionate about collecting items, ranging from beer coasters to postage stamps. Many also like to collect information, for example in the form of MP3s. The advent of music streaming has suddenly made 35 million MP3s instantly available. However, one does not own this information, either physically – e.g. in the form of CDs – or in a figurative sense. We don’t own the 35 million available tracks; we can only use them in virtual form. This is probably the reason why many people are opposed to streaming or storing data in the cloud; they feel that rather than owning the data, they only manage it. Perhaps the real obstacle is not so much the fear of contact with new technologies, but the primal desire to possess something physically – in this case, knowledge. The hunter-gatherer gene is deep within us.

More information, but less knowledge?

The collective knowledge of mankind has definitely expanded greatly over the last 2,500 years. However, the individual human beings who inhabit our digitalised world, constantly surrounded by a chaos of information, have probably not been able to increase their intellectual potential by comparison to the denizens of antiquity. More information does not necessarily mean more knowledge. We don’t know more, we just know faster, and we delete knowledge faster because we constantly need to re-adapt. The world has accelerated enormously, and our knowledge consequently dissipates with similar alacrity.

Two great upheavals: Climate change and the information revolution.

Today, information is available at any time and about any topic. This is unprecedented in the history of mankind. Quite the contrary: In the distant past, most knowledge was only accessible to a small elite. The digital age has reversed that situation completely, resulting in many social upheavals – and the process is still in full swing. From this perspective, we are experiencing not only a climate change, but also an information change. The only question is what we will make of the new possibilities that we are offered. Knowledge is power, they used to say. Today, however, it is more important than ever to know what knowledge we want to use and how we can process it. To know whether we are googling ourselves stupid and wasting our time, or learning in a targeted manner and filtering the right information out of the flood of data. And whether we can dive deep into the sea of knowledge and bring unimagined treasures to the surface. The opportunities are there, we only need to seek them out.

What conclusions can be drawn in relation to digital marketing?

What do you know about your customers? Are you addressing your target group through the right channels and with the right messages? Our expertise in digital marketing will provide you with valuable information and the appropriate tools to take your customer communication to the next new level. suchdialog will support you with a wealth of key knowledge. We will develop a digital marketing concept with you that doesn’t simply skim the surface, but dives deep into the big picture and helps you to exploit the huge potential of state-of-the-art digital marketing.

About Rainer Rupp.

Rainer Rupp studied German philology and philosophy before he was drawn to the advertising industry in 1995. After several years training and travelling with large agencies, he started his present career as a freelance copywriter in Heidelberg in 2003. In addition to writing copy for the service industry – which earns his bread and butter – the author is also passionate about writing literary texts. Despite AI and all the other bells and whistles, there is one thing that the digital world cannot do without: the human brain and its inimitable neuron fireworks. We see things much the same, by the way.

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