During the summer, I spent a week at Laurieston Hall in Scotland. In addition to being situated amidst acres of woodland and farmland, with private access to a loch, the hall is (almost) and internet free zone. There is no wifi, no mobile broadband signal and very few spots that receive even a faint mobile phone signal. This means that a week at Laurieston Hall is a week without email, Facebook, Twitter, web, online games or SMS. As someone who is connected through all of these networks, a week offline is, for the most part, welcome relief except that I found I missed Google. There were two particular occasions when I really missed the ability to turn to Google for information.
The first was when I stumbled across a book about the Solway Firth. I have sailed in the Solway and it is notable for its remoteness. It is not a well-known part of Britain but it includes ancient abbeys, industries and fishing ports. It was also the site of the last attempted invasion of England. In brief, the Solway is interesting but not a place whose history is familiar. I was hungry; I wanted to know more and I wanted it immediately. Had I been at home or even in an area with 3G I would have rushed to Google to learn as much as I could as quickly as possible. I admit, I had a book in my hands but a) it was old and b) because I was attending a workshop I was only able to read in short snatches of time c) the writing had a density that was clearly intended for slow, considered reading. The second occasion was when some friends were trying to remember the lyrics to ‘Annie’s Song’ by John Denver. Oh, for Google at my fingertips! I frequently look up music: lyrics, sheet music or performances. Collectively, we managed to recall most, but not all, of the lyrics.
This made me think about the question of whether Google is making us ‘stupid’ asked by Nicholas Carr in 2008 and more recently by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. A recent ‘study’ reported in the Daily Express claims that people are no longer able to remember important historical dates because they can look them up on the internet. Apparently, the only dates that people recall with ease are the Battle of Hastings and the English World Cup victory. There are two reasons to approach this article with caution. Firstly, the ‘study’ was carried out by Grant’s Whisky rather than by academics (it is arguable that whisky is far more damaging to memory than Google might be). Secondly, there is no evidence that people have ever remembered key historical dates with ease. Sellers and Yeatman published their historical parody “1066 and All That” in 1930 and the joke then was that 1066 was the only historical date that people could recall.
What would I have done about the Solway Firth and “Annie’s Song” in the pre-internet age? Would I have been more or less ‘stupid’? With regard to the Solway, I would probably have remained in ignorance. I might possibly have remembered to research it when I next went to the library but it’s likely that I would have forgotten. With ‘Annie’s Song’ the frustration of the earworm would probably have driven me to look for a book containing the lyrics and the music. I might even have gone to a music shop to buy one. So, it seems that, in some ways, Google has actually made me more enthusiastic about seeking knowledge and more willing to chase facts. The world stimulates my curiosity and Google helps to satisfy it. For example, a few years ago I spoke at a conference in Gujerat and the conference organisers arranged a trip to the Sardar Patel Memorial. I am ashamed to say that, before this, I knew very little about this great man, despite his importance in the history of India. The visit to the memorial sparked my interest and as soon as I returned to the hotel wifi, I looked up Sardar Patel. Because of the effort I put into searching for and reading information I will not now forget who Sardar Patel was and the role that he played in the development of India. Those are the important facts. I don’t remember the dates, though but then, I can always look those up; I know where to find them!
By the way, the Solway coast is an Area of Outstanding National Beauty. It is definitely worth finding out more: http://www.solwaycoastaonb.org.uk/