Google: Where Conversation Goes to Die

With all due respect to Google, the advent of the search engine unexpectedly dampened my enthusiasm for learning. See, I learn best by listening (followed closely by group work, in case you want to plan future lessons accordingly). Lectures, meetings, announcements: they're all some of my favorite things because of how much I gain from them. 

But Google has changed one key aspect of how I internalize information: questions. 

Answers: A Case Study

Up until my second year of graduate school, here's how I would attempt to discover if I should be diagnosed with meningitis on a biannual basis (hypochondria is fun, kids!): 

1. Pick up the telephone.

2. Dial my family's 800 number calling card. 

3. Enter our 16 digit access code. 

4. Dial my parent's phone number. 

5. Ask my mom what the symptoms of meningitis were, and compare them to my own symptoms (side note: meningitis and anxiety are interestingly close in symptoms). 

6. Talk to my mom for another twenty minutes about life, the universe, and everything. 

7. Hang up the phone feeling slightly better about the fact that even if I do have meningitis, I at least also have an awesome mom. 

Asking Used to Inspire Conversation

And this is how a lot of us got our information a decade ago: through asking questions. We'd pull over to a gas station and ask where the best priced Slinky might be found. We'd walk through a brick-laden campus and ask where Knight Library was. We'd call our hair stylist to understand the intricacies of having our locks lavendered. We'd ask the waitress if she'd seen the new Batman movie and if we really looked like Batgirl or if that guy at the bar had just been messing around/flirting with us. 

I was a curious child, wondering what snails might be thinking and fascinated by the decision to shy away from analog clocks in favor of digital. My dad tells me he was the same way, always asking "How come?" after any given statement of fact or opinion and driving his parents a tad batty (question: where did the term "batty" come from and was it derived before or after Batman started torturing the Joker?). 

And I grew up to be a curious adult. I ponder exactly how cold it is outside and whether the chill warrants a pea coat or a hoodie. I want to know a simple way to core a tomato. I wonder if it feels like the world as we know it will be over if and when Michele Norris leaves All Things Considered. I think too long about how so many smooth rocks are so far away from the ocean, if glaciers know they're moving, and how the answer a Magic-8 ball gives makes my best friend feel.  My dad is the same way, mostly querying how something like a dresser is put together or trying to understand the intricacies of why a stranger has painted their house blue. 

All of these little mysteries are a large part of my daily discourse. Questions are how I relate not just to the world, but to people. But curiosity no longer only kills cats - it's slaying conversation, too. 

Where Did All the Answers Go? 

In childhood, I enjoyed my curiosity. My dad taught me how to harness it and use it to make friends in unlikely situations, like in line at the bathroom in a bar or at a suburban restaurant opening. Questions gave me access to not just answers, but an exchange to ideas and an opening to learning about how people think and exist in the world. 

Now though, being curious stimulates a snarktastic snap from friends and strangers alike: Let me Google that for you.

Simply wondering out loud in a manor that once provoked conversation, not just about the original question but rather everything else in between, is suddenly a distraction (from what, I'm not sure - perhaps Instagram). It's as though most people never actually wanted to be bothered, but didn't know it until a search engine came into being. 

I dislike this expectation, that I'm supposed to turn to a machine for all information. Don't get me wrong, I love that Yelp can point me to the nearest cup of coffee, and that Google Maps can find me a gas station in the middle of I-5 (and save my bacon as I was closer to out of fuel than not with no pit-stop in sight). But I miss two things: first, the connection that comes from a shared experience, even when all that experience consists of is "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?" A question can often be the basis of a memory, or a story that will be told again and again. 

And second, I miss the social knowledge that was taken for granted before Google. Take directions. People occasionally ask me to help them get where they are headed. Pre smart-phone, I could answer almost any navigational ask in my immediate and surrounding neighborhoods. I was aware enough of street names, numbers of stop signs between here and there, and landmarks. Now though, I notice myself struggling. Where is Laguna? I find myself thinking when I meet someone in the 'hood and we're talking addresses. (It's a street I run by every few days, I learned). There's an interesting shift in social knowledge taking place and I can't help but wonder what the ramifications of that will be.