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December 10, 2008

“Fat, Drunk, and Stupid…

Filed under: Main — Tags: — admin @ 12:01 am

…is no way to go through life, son.” That memorable line was spoken by the baleful Dean Wormer in Animal House (1978). In the early 21st Century, however, the statement can be replaced with the following:

Googling your way through life will get you nowhere.

Granted, it’s not as powerful, but it’s a highly relevant point.

In 1997, I wrote that the Internet was like a library without the vital element of a card catalog or librarian. Through a wildly successful search engine, Google has become the Internet’s librarian. Of course, that comparison isn’t exactly spot-on because the Internet is not a library, not in the sense that it contains unique and worthy contributions to the culture, knowledge, and wisdom of mankind.

Nope, using the Internet for research is similar to asking someone a question at a cocktail party: Sometimes you get the right answer, but most often the answer you get is merely a repetition of information already gathered by someone else, which may or may not be valid. That’s okay for some purposes, but when it comes to education or your job, it’s information you’d never dare use. Ditto for Google.

Despite warnings, many students use Google (specifically Wikipedia) as a study tool. That’s okay, but not valid by itself. Going to school is not about being a parrot. Having a job is not about doing something that anyone else can to. Nope, it’s about using your own noggin. After all, if your teacher or boss can use the Internet to look up the same answer that you did, then what use are you?

During my recent robotic judging tour, I was paired with Sal, who teaches high school technology. He’s tough on kids who use Google to write their homework. Basically, he picks out one, very well-written sentence from a student’s report and uses it as a Google search term. Most of the time, the search results display the exact paper the student claimed that they wrote. End result: An F.

It happens a lot.

I assume it also happens in various businesses around the country as well. I know that when I’m researching stuff on the Internet, I find the same answer repeated thousands of times. While researching some error codes recently, of the 300,000 “hits” that Google reported, I discovered that nearly all of them were the same document repeated, copied, and quoted. All of them. Over and over. That wasn’t 300,000 hits, but only one hit. (I eventually confirmed the answer in printed documentation elsewhere.)

So while the Internet is a useful tool, it’s not the modern equivalent of the Library at Alexandria, and Google is no Erastosthenes. If you really want to better yourself, don’t copy-and-paste your way through life: use a book. The value of a book over the value of a web page is more than just the cover price.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure I totally agree with you, Dan. There’s definitely a pile of crap out there on the internet. One of my buddies likes to say that the Internet is the biggest collection of useless information the world has ever seen. He’s mostly right. But keep in mind that I’ve read books that are full of misinformation, hearsay, and misconceptions too. I think books do have a higher bar (after all, any shmoe can write a web page or blog) but no matter where you get your information from you need to confirm it either by directly experimenting yourself (for example, when fixing a computer) or by finding other credible sources.

    I think it’s similar to the current debate between some newspaper sports beat writers and sports bloggers. Some newspaper writers tend to dismiss bloggers as guys writing their opinions in their pajamas, and while it describes a large majority of blogs out there, but it ignores a few very influential and highly read blogs.

    I guess my point is that while I agree that the internet is definitely not a be all to end all resource, it can be a powerful tool if used correctly and in the right context. And books are very much the same way, but with a higher level of credibility.

    Comment by jamh51 — December 10, 2008 @ 10:58 am

  2. I agree with most of what you say, jamh51. The Internet’s speed and access do make it easier for kids to both cheat and get caught. Kids can copy out of books just as well, but it would be more difficult to verify.

    Printed information is only so good. In my research papers, I remember having at least three sources to verify material. One project I did a little bit deeper research in the library. I discovered that all three of my sources quoted from the same source, which meant that the three were really one source. That problem happens a lot in history where “historians” merely read what other historians have written, which echoes on and on throughout history.

    I remember another story about all the textbooks that claimed humans have 24 chromosomes. That was until one student took the picture in the book and actually counted them. He came up with 23. The professor was surprised (obviously), and they discovered the mistake went back from book to book, where the “researcher” merely copied over the wrong information again and again. I think my point is that such mistakes are proliferated even faster and with less accuracy on the Internet.

    Regardless, do use your own head when someone pays to think. 🙂

    Comment by admin — December 10, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

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