Note: I’ve never actually read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. Sorry, Jennifer Holberg.
Maybe I’m a failure at search engines or just a bad digital citizen, but more often than not I find myself cursing Google and its power. With the internet at my fingertips and years of (student) research under my belt, I seem to assume that I can always find the answers I am looking for with one artful Google. Searching “inspirational quotes” will take me to nuggets of pithy wisdom superimposed on stock images of landscapes. When I look for any “Christian” takes on culture, a variety of balanced, nuanced discussions that reach across common political divides will surface. The fully fledged question that I type into the search bar (how to roast red peppers in the oven, how to write a short story video) will yield an excerpt from some webpage so short and pertinent that I can close the tab, no further clicking necessary.
Instead, I spend fifteen minutes delving into rabbit holes of irrelevant websites and fact-checking if John Dewey really said, “We do not learn from experience… We learn from reflecting on experience” (spoiler: not precisely).
Throughout history, we as a society have been dragging ourselves closer and closer to solving the perennial inability of most human brains to remember every piece of information they come across. Innovations of written language, easily printable books, and now a globally connected repository of information have almost taken us to the solution. Google (and, you know, other search engines) proposes itself to be the missing piece of that puzzle.
Except when it isn’t.
When I approach Google this way, as the last link in the chain to the golden age of never needing to memorize anything, and then it sends me on a goose chase, I feel betrayed. But lately, I’ve been trying to reframe my perspective by picturing the internet as an attic—one that is full to the brim with all the stuff you couldn’t bear to throw away. On rainy days, it’s delightful to rummage through the piles and find their hidden treasures; on busy days, it’s a massive pain to sift through when all you want is this one specific photograph from 1976. If you go into it with search terms at the ready, you’ll just end up buried under old junk.
So how do we enjoy the romps through the attic without wanting to tear our hair out on the days where we really need that one statistic that sums up how important college actually is?
In the early days of the internet, before all the structures were cemented, people experimented with how to connect all of these things that were beginning to gather in cyberspace. Wendy Hall created a system called Microcosm in which the system would maintain a database of articles and things and would connect the related media for you. Perhaps if we didn’t hop on the HTML train, I wouldn’t have had to spend fifteen minutes on Google just trying to find this alternative to hypertext.
But in reality, we aren’t about to toss out hyperlinks for an unreasonably slow system. And most of the time Google does work. But in the times that it doesn’t, I want you to remember the power of your curated feed in helping you to uncover the articles you really want to read. Sure, there’s a lot to be said about echo chambers and the dangers of only listening to people who you agree with; however, I still believe that we will find the treasures of the internet through trusting in other people to filter the good stuff to us. It’s how information has been passed down before—albeit on a much smaller scale of book recommendations and family stories—but we find the provocative and the nuanced through our people. Let’s leverage that power as much as we can so that when the dead ends of Google come calling, we can turn to our own feeds for help.
I’ll leave you with a sampling of articles that I have stumbled across and saved in my Evernote, just in case I ever need them: a free course about big data, a now-removed blog post about folksonomies aka tags on social media (I have the full text if you are interested), a blog post that mediates on the concept of home, this delightful website, and, ironically, an infographic about how to “get more out of Google”.
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.