Thursday New Tools Feature: Google Universe

Today's brief Google outage notwithstanding, it's pretty good these days for people who like finding things on the internet.

In its ongoing quest to index the universe, Google has just announced several advanced new search features. The most immediately obvious for Google users is the new “Show Options” feature, which allows you to refine your search results in real-time, instead of doing a separate advanced search. It also includes several ways to view your search and related searches, including the “magic wheel,” pictured here, and "timeline" views. They are also working on some experimental features, including “Google Squared,” which returns your results in tables, the most important information coupled with each result.

Google isn't the only one making it easier to quickly find what you're searching for. Twitter's search feature has undergone some improvements over the last few months, making it much easier to pick the social network's collective brain. And cool new tools like Twitscoop allow a virtual real-time cross-section of what people on the world's third-largest social network are thinking and talking about.

Instant access to so much information, and along with it the ability to have one's own voice heard by others around the world, have already altered politics forever, making it easier both to be informed and to participate, which is one of the biggest arguments that NDN and the New Politics Institute have been making for years.

But these developments are not just changing our politics -- they're changing us, too. A recent article in The American Scene, "Your Brain is an Index," explores the way that instant searchable access to so much information is rewiring our neurons. Citing the same Atlantic article by Nicholas Carr I wrote about a few weeks ago, the author of the American Scene piece speculates that,

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.

The comments at the bottom are are pretty great. Some of my favorites:

"I could barely get to the end of this article before Tweeting and sending some emails. True Story and great read."

"This reminds me of a Richard Feynman anecdote. I don’t recall all the details (though I could look them up!) but basically he was auditing a graduate-level biology class and did a presentation on some topic of anatomy. He got a lukewarm response because it turns out he was just presenting a bunch of info that the “real” bio students had already had to memorize. His reaction was basically that it seemed like a waste of brain cells to memorize stuff that’s just as easily looked up."

Kevin Drum from Mother Jones is less optimistic, saying that he likes this argument, but,

...unfortunately, I can't think of any evidence at all to suggest it's true. Understanding "broader categories" — the context into which individual pieces of knowledge fit — requires you to read books. Full stop. Maybe someday it won't, but it does now...I'd love to be wrong about this. But I'm not. If you want to understand the world, not just collect endless factlets, you still need to read books. If you do, the internet makes you smarter. If you don't, it makes you dumber.

I think both sides of this argument have some merit. I definitely agree that constantly searching for indexed information can make it harder to focus on single topics for sustained periods, but I also think the benefits probably outweigh the costs. Furthermore, there isn't really anything about the physical, bound-paper book that possesses magical intelligence-imbuing properties; Devices like Amazon's new, larger Kindle, which will be used to display textbooks as well as newspapers and blogs, may be a sign of where learning is headed in the digital age.

One thing is for sure. There is no use railing against this trend; rather, we need to work to better understand it and how it is changing our minds, our societies, and our politics. I'll close with a quote from the most recent New Yorker about the rise of "neuroenhancing" study drugs:

...But it’s not the mind-expanding sixties anymore. Every era, it seems, has its own defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus.