Picture this: you’re sitting in the hot seat on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It’s 1999, when the show first aired, and you’ve got three lifelines to use if you get stuck on your journey to riches: 50-50, where a computer automatically removes two wrong answers, Ask-the-Audience, a poll of the people watching and Phone-a-Friend, one call to a preselected member of your personal network.
In comparison to asking a computer or strangers to help you, the Phone-a-Friend option was intimate. Despite the fact that Regis Philbin, a crowd and millions at home were watching you nervously aspire to greatness, you had to reach out to someone you knew and ask for help. And in doing so, reveal the depths—and the often corresponding exasperation—of your uncertainty.
The Phone-a-Friend lifeline is a relic of the past: it was scrapped from the show before the 2009 season after producers wised up and realized people at home could cheat using search engines like Google. And to extend this metaphor outside of the Millionaire world, asking another human for information instead of turning to the internet is an artifact from a distant time, too. Because of Google.
Obviously, before Google and digital technology started changing our lives, the whole world functioned as a big ole game of Phone-a-Friend or Ask-the-Audience. Depending on how far back you go, our source of information—I’m thinking a town crier, here—rested on the knowledge of others. Even if you went to the library, you had to know what you were looking for beforehand (and know the Dewey Decimal System) lest you be doomed to wander aimlessly through the aisles until it closed for the day.
The ubiquity of search engines today makes sense. Our world moves fast and as a result, we demand instant gratification, results at our fingertips, information that’s easily accessible. That’s not inherently bad: search engines have helped democratize knowledge, making vast amounts of previously unattainable information known. And though it’s incredible for crunching numbers, doing conversions and tracking down that B-list actor you recognize but can’t place, our reliance on search engines is doing weird things to our brains, to say the least.
In 2011, researchers from Columbia, Harvard and the University of Wisconsin-Madison collaborated to study how Google is changing our memory. Aptly called the Google Effect, the researchers found that when we know this much information is out there, and so easy to get, we’re less likely to store the answers in our own brains. Google’s got it, so no need to remember this search! say our brains. (Ted Hunt wrote about this phenomenon in a Quartz article titled “Googling gives us answers—but deprives us of intelligence” if you want more information.)
The problem of relying on tech to archive information (especially personal things, like our memories or SSNs) goes beyond the Google Effect. When we offload the burden of knowledge to a search engine, we not only become mentally lazy, but we lose the intimacy of asking someone we know for their help. Our Google obsession, in turn, seems to rest on our increasing ability to live without interacting with another human being (hello, Bodega) and to keep what we don’t know private.
Search engines let us keep our lack of know-how to ourselves as we throw questions into a seemingly anonymous internet abyss (surprise: the internet keeps better records of your activities than your friends). While we’re fine with having Google know the extensive list of things we don’t know, we hesitate sharing that with our personal networks.
When we offload the burden of knowledge to a search engine, we not only become mentally lazy, but we lose the intimacy of asking someone we know for their help.
So for one week, I decided to force myself to crowdsource wisdom and break from the dependency of letting Google be the only keeper of what I don’t know. I would ask people around me for help, and in doing so, reveal—despite my ethos of pretending to know-it-all until someone finds out otherwise—that I’m human. And still learning.
Here’s How It Worked
For a week, I turned to my friends, family and coworkers with questions I would’ve normally thrown into Google’s gaping maw.
To be clear, I still used Google for fact-checking and story research for work. But for other questions, like if an em dash was appropriate for a given sentence, I either individually contacted a person I knew who I thought would have an answer, asked a Slack channel full of my coworkers or posted an Ask-the-Audience-like call for information on social media.
How It Actually Went
I will not, for all of our sakes, recount my entire human-search history in detail, and thankfully, people are worse at remembering things than computers. But here are a few examples.
I asked my co-workers some grammatical and style questions as they’re all writers and editors. For instance, I asked what to do if you’re quoting a researcher who uses British spelling, like behaviour instead of behavior (just change it, according to human-Google) and when to capitalize “moon.” (It was while writing up Neil deGrasse Tyson’s episode of the Thrive Global podcast, naturally.) For future reference, when referring to Earth’s Moon it is capital M-Moon. Otherwise, it is moon.
Asking people who have more expertise than me took out the middle-machine. And, unlike the many times I’ve searched Google for the same exact thing because I haven’t properly stored the findings in my brain, I will always remember the moon rule.
But in all honesty, I felt shame in asking. I’m a “writer” who studied English at a well-known liberal arts school. Aren’t I supposed to know these things?
While that may say more about self-imposed expectations and lurking imposter syndrome tendencies than anything else, it also suggests that expertise can lead you to a false sense of infallibility. I was embarrassed to reveal that I didn’t know something that fell under the general wheelhouse of Things I Thought Other People Thought I Should Know. It made me feel exposed and raw to reveal otherwise. It felt unacceptable to be unsure about something I dared be good at, let alone employed for.
I was embarrassed to reveal that I didn’t know something that fell under the general wheelhouse of Things I Thought Other People Thought I Should Know.
I didn’t feel the same sense of shame for more whimsical asks. For instance, I asked my Harry Potter encyclopedia of a friend the word for the screaming plant in Harry Potter—a Mandrake—and felt absolutely nothing.
Yes, the shame mainly surrounded subjects I’m familiar with or have pretended to know about in the past (a certain classic movie I’ve pretended to have seen for a decade comes to mind). In other areas though, the Human Google Experiment served as an easy way to reach out without any expectation of conversation beyond the singular ask. I was able to tailor questions to who I was asking, which was actually a fun way to connect with friends I hadn’t spoken to in a while. For example, I asked my friend who is a graduate student in math—yes, math—at UC Berkeley what percentage of my life so far Game of Thrones has been on the air. (Roughly ⅓.)
I crowdsourced wisdom for articles I’m working on via Facebook and Instagram, putting out open calls for ideas on experts and internet-related puns. I was shocked to find that social media, true to its name, can be social. Using the platform to ask for help and make information-seeking a communal effort, rather than a bleak, one-sided narrative of what I’d (supposedly) been up to was refreshing. It’s something I’ve continued to do long past the week of not using Google.
One of the best aspects of my experiment is that I could send subjective, nuanced and not-quite-right-for-Google questions to people that I trusted. For instance, I wanted to gauge the public’s perception of an influential, will-remain-nameless famous man in entertainment. Even if I was using Google, I wouldn’t have known how to search for this answer. It would have been a disaster. I asked my friend who is savant-like in celebrity information about what people thought of this person and received a lengthy reply, curated by someone whose taste I trust, and who was filtering information based on what he knew I wanted—like an algorithm with nuance and subtle judgement.
Being able to ask slightly subjective questions was revelatory. But more so, being able to walk someone through how I was trying to formulate my thoughts was an extremely helpful exercise: I had to be okay with being unsure about the answer, but also about how to ask the question I wanted to ask. Texting a friend “I don’t know how to phrase this” or “I’m not sure where to start” has an honesty that Google can’t (yet) provide.
Should You Try It?
We have a societal aversion to uncertainty. More specifically, we have a cultural complex around letting people know what we don’t know.
We have a societal aversion to uncertainty.
Google is convenient. It’s faster than calling or texting a friend for an answer, even if you know they know the answer. And to top it all off, it’s discreet. Or—and this is an important caveat—it feels discreet. While you may be giving the internet useful information about what you’re looking for and what kind of things you’ll likely want to buy down the line, at least your friends don’t have to see the underbelly of your naïveté. (Oh, the shame.)
Today, the problem of not knowing something is largely obsolete because of the vast amounts of information we have available to us. (On the other hand though, that very excess of information arguably makes it harder to find truth than ever before. But I digress.) More than just having easier access to knowledge—which is, on the whole, a great thing—search engines have made our lives like those playing Millionaire after the lifelines got modern: there’s minimal human interaction involved in seeking knowledge. And that loss is a deep one. My experiment made me nostalgic for a time where seeking answers necessitated speaking to another human being. Or perhaps going to the library and puzzling it out for yourself. Or just never figuring it out.
All of that led me to the realization that while yes, I most often use Google strictly because it’s fast and at this point, a well-formed habit, I also use it to keep the gaps in my knowledge private. And though I am well aware that what I search for is not private in any sense of the word, it stills feels like there’s a relative anonymity in asking your questions to a machine. Google isn’t judging you.
I did feel embarrassed asking people questions, but I think it was an important reaction. Not only did the shame lessen every time I asked, but there’s something immensely powerful in reminding people—and yourself—that you are not your ability to Google search. You are not a machine. You are fallible and wrong and ignorant—that’s why you ask for help, why you seek answers.
The experiment was humbling. I learned early on in life that revealing what you don’t know is not a weakness, but a strength. But I’d forgotten, as I think most of us do. Especially when, if you forget something you once knew, you can just search for it again and again, despite being in the middle of a conversation or the middle of dinner. Information is everywhere.
Letting myself sit with the discomfort and slowness of uncertainty felt meditative and oddly profound. I came up with answers that were adjacent but not exact. I allowed room for confusion, for imprecision. I allowed other people in. I asked for help and showed them that my knowledge has limits.
So yes, I would recommend the Human Google Experiment. It’s worth reminding yourself that wisdom is out there in your friends, family and colleagues—you just have to ask.