13 December 2009

You don't need goggles because you're swimming in shallow water

Since we are talking technology, might I ask what on earth the boffins at Google were thinking of when they came up with the brilliant idea of Goggles?

If someone was going on a trip to, say, San Francisco, wouldn’t he borrow a good travel guide from the local library, or do some research on the Internet (perhaps even using the Google search engine) before leaving home? In this way, he would have some idea of where to go and how to plan his days. Who travels to a strange destination without knowing where he is going, what he is doing there, and why he is there? If you don’t know anything whatsoever about the place, then why pay for an air ticket to go there?

I will pose similar rhetorical questions for other objects that Goggles can handle. Works of art, for example. Point your mobile at a painting (or even a picture of a painting if you’re into simulacra) and Goggles will identify it and produce a page of relevant search results from the Web (undoubtedly the ubiquitous Wikipedia will assume position No. 1 on that list). Ditto for any products with barcodes, bottles of wine, books, DVDs and so on and so forth.

The geeks and nerds are already waxing lyrical about the “potential” this new development offers. The only potential I can see is for Google to strengthen its dominant position even more – users can opt to save their searches and this new information will enlarge Google’s database, for the benefit of future Goggles aficionados.

Admittedly, one might concede there is some usefulness to be gained from Goggles: it is perfectly feasible that someone might be lost in a strange town late one evening, have no knowledge of the local lingo and desperately need to find the nearest McDonald’s in order to stave off growing hunger pains. Alternatively, he may wish to know more about the unusual wine his host is serving up at dinner and how much it really cost. (On second thoughts, perhaps it would be better if he didn’t know).

However, I see a worrying trend emerging where we don’t even need to know the name of a thing, or indeed articulate a question, in order to find out more about the nature of this thing. What is more, how can we truly appreciate and utilize the information gained when we couldn’t identify the object under investigation in the first place?

Call me a cyber-Luddite if you like, but it is a fact: language skills and true research capabilities will deteriorate (are deteriorating?) as we “communicate” more and more via electronic media. Soon we will merely point our mobile phones at whatever catches our attention and click a button. Perhaps the only human sound to be uttered will be a grunt of satisfaction as we read off the information on the screen.
Nicholas Carr questions whether Google is making us stupid. I would qualify this by saying that the dunces stay dunces and the intelligent stay intelligent: there is no way on earth that Google can turn us all into Nobel prize winners. What Google (and others of their ilk) IS doing is making us LAZY.

Some things never change

Marshall McLuhan recalls a prank that used to do the rounds in the days at the turn of the (previous) century when the telephone was still a novelty and people were not so au fait with new technologies. A practical joker would ring up his friends, pretending to be a telephone engineer. He would then proceed to inform them that the telephone lines would be cleaned out that day. Subscribers should cover their phones with an old sheet, otherwise the room would fill with dirt during the cleaning process. Then the prankster would rush round to his friends’ homes, enjoying a laugh at their expense as they covered everything in sheets and waited for the lines to be blown out and cleared. (Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge, 1987 [1964], p.268).

The other day (purely coincidentally) I read Dilbert’s modern take on this eternal problem of blocked wires (http://www.dilbert.com/comics/dilbert/archive/dilbert-20070913.html accessed Friday, 11 December 2009). ‘New’ technology is not so new after all when it poses the same old challenges for the not so technologically minded.

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Squeaky Door by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.