This week, Google turned 20. Don’t believe it? Well, Google it.
Sometimes, particularly for the younger generation, it can be hard to think that just two decades ago there wasn’t the wealth of the world’s knowledge, available right at anyone’s fingertips in the blink of a second. Instead of being able to click in an instant, most people had to go to the library or a dusty encyclopedia to check even the most basic facts. To find out about news or world events hours away, instead of scrolling, one would have to pick up a telephone or wait days to hear from a correspondent via a letter, a publication, or a broadcast that might require time for editing before airing.
In so many ways, the work of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as well as others of their ilk creating other search engines, social media sites, and technological advances has changed the world around them. Generally speaking, that has been a good thing as it allows for more connectivity, better productivity, and convenience that simply wasn’t available before. The increased diversity of voices alone has been a game change for the way society functions.
All that said, it appears the world is still trying to come to grips with the impact of this instant-gratification technology. While so much more is now available, more thought needs to be given to the dissemination of information and the ability of users to find quality sources amid an overload of content.
People of all backgrounds and education levels can access the vast expanse of the Internet, but there isn’t necessarily the same road maps and warning signs that are available outside of the virtual world. Is there enough curating being done to effectively inform visitors about the value of information they are searching? Presumably algorithms should prioritize the better information sources based on data, but what happens if someone with a deeper pool of resources can skew the placement and importance of a particular viewpoint?
Contrasting the old days of accepted media sources and high standards for third-party academic review, there’s more freedom to publish and more freedom to access information and thought. Unfortunately, it is also easier than it ever has been to collect news from slanted, like-minded sources and not consider the “bubble effect” that provides. That explains the general shock from those in the media when Donald Trump won the last American election and it explains the clatter about “fake news” frin all directions Those trends should set a course for reflection and change.
It would be foolish to suggest the advance of technology would or should grind to a halt. Therefore, it is incumbent on society to find ways to make navigation more effective. The top imperative on that agenda is teaching critical thinking from an early age. Students in schools must be subjected to several conflicting views about civic events and, rather than simply regurgitating dates and fact, should be encouraged to debate and to question the meaning of what they read and the voice in which it has been written. By approaching the world with a keen understanding of differences from an early age, future generations can appreciate they have a role to play in finding and demanding quality analysis and reporting.
There also must be more discussion about public support for a model that will provide that content. While more and more people can access content, there appears to be less and less support for a trained, objective fourth estate with a diversity of voices. It’s needed more than ever. Perhaps, rebuilding such a model should be the next challenge for those bright life-altering minds at Google and elsewhere to tackle.