Google SearchWiki

Google have just launched an additional service called SearchWiki for those with a Google account. Basically you get to add notes to search results or move around search rankings. Google will remember them when you search again and you are logged into your account. That is, you won’t see them if you’re not logged in and your changes make no difference to what others see, unless they ask to see what notes other people have made.

It’s an interesting development for search because it will not only mean you can use notes to remember things for later, but also improve Google’s ranking and searching ability. I feel sure that the notes or amount of notes or something similar will eventually feed into Google’s own algorithms. So, not only will people be complaining that Google is making us dumber, but also that we’re making Google smarter.

You can also have a look at how SearchWiki works.

Google isn’t making us dumb, but ‘smart’ is changing


It started with Asi’s comments on Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? article. Forty-five minutes later I had Googled through laterally-related sites, read several blog posts – one or two both considered and longlistened to a lecture and found a book I hadn’t known about but will probably read.

Has any of that made me dumber? No. Does it conform to what we have been taught to consider smart? Probably not. And there’s the problem. Carr is looking through the telescope from the wrong end. It’s not that Google is making us dumb, it’s just that what we used to think of as ‘smart’ probably wasn’t that smart after all.

The main thrust of Carr’s piece is that the web encourages us to skim and is re-wiring our brains so much that we’re unable to read and concentrate deeply anymore. Moreover, this fuelled by Google’s desire to earn click revenue from this kind of behaviour – this was the conspiracy theory aspect that Asi felt was a step too far, whilst he identified with the skimming behaviour.

Carr draws upon the work of developmental psychologist, Maryanne Wolf, to explain that, “Reading is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is.” Except that speech probably isn’t etched into our genes in that way. According to Steven Pinker and others, the form of language arises from the way with conceive of and perceive the world, not the other way around as Linguistic Determinism would have us believe.

Carr quotes a study from University College London that examined how users use a database of journal articles, e-books and other written material:

“Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

(Carr doesn’t provide a reference, by the way, but you can find a PDF of the report from the British Library and download the full study from UCL).

Underlying all of this is the notion that deep reading of long passages is inherently ‘smarter’ reading than skimming, browsing, clicking and hopping. This goes hand in hand with the idea that retaining information makes us smart. It’s no wonder – the way we are educated places great emphasis on the ability to regurgitate information in exams, but that, as many educators know, tends to encourage surface as opposed to deep learning.

Very crudely, surface learning is about learning facts and ideas uncritically and deep learning is about tying ideas and concepts together and making links between them. Which one of those sounds more like reading online? (In case it’s not obvious to you ‘dumb’ people out there – I’m suggesting it’s the latter.)

As Asi points out, is a kind of repository of stuff that I may never go and read again, as is the “To Read” folder permanently on my desktop. But these are like über notes – rather than my scrawled lines, I have a link to the original material, some of which makes it into my own personal databases.

As is often the case with notes, I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now. The act of saving the article or posting it to helps me remember that it exists at all. Not only that, but it helps me find other links to material I never knew about, which is largely Steven Johnson’s point about serendipitous learning (the ultimate in serendipity has to be StumbleUpon).

Bear in mind that the study Carr quotes was in partnership with the British Library and that studies often ‘find’ what you are looking for in the first place. This part of the report that looks at the truth in the ‘Google Generation’ myths stuck out for me:

They prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text

Our verdict: This is a myth. CIBER deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, `?icking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.

Hang on. It’s quite a leap to say that ‘power browsing’ means society is dumbing down. Do they really mean that all those students, postgraduates and professors are dumber? It’s not easy to get a professorship or a postgraduate degree (which tend to be the most research intensive). My experience and impression is that it is often much harder than it used to be.

Could it not be that the ‘older researchers’ research differently because that’s simply what they are used to? Or maybe they haven’t ‘smarted up’ yet. The study notes this ‘pre-digital’ memory as being a factor in the different styles.

I think people use Google not just because it’s easier, but it fits the way with think better than most research library databases, which tend to have dreadful interfaces and force researchers to think like a database programmer, not like a person.

The ‘smart’ that the study defines is really about knowing the foibles of these systems; it’s got little to do with actual learning. The study notes this: “young people do not ?nd library-sponsored resources intuitive and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo instead”.

The problem isn’t the dumbness of the searchers, it’s the dumbness of the interface. Academic databases are really quite rigid and linear as research tools and they don’t encourage much in the way of joined-up, linked and network thinking.

Knowing how to apply and connect knowledge and information is a much more important (and future-proof) skill than simply knowing the information, but most educational institutions are used to being guardians of knowledge and information, which is why they’re panicking. What we used to think of as smart may not be anymore (and it’s probably why hot-housing your kids doesn’t work).

Ironically, given Carr’s reading of Google through the lens of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s industrial efficiency, it is precisely this Industrial Revolution style of thinking that we’re moving away from. Pat Kane argues the point in The Play Ethic:

“[F]or the culture of industrialism, in which an individual’s submission to routine is what is most valued, a network society is something of a disaster. The industrial mindset is too brittle to cope with the way that networks operate.”

What we are seeing in the transformation of media, advertising and marketing, learning and teaching, and culture in general is that the way we used to measure the value of any of those things no longer works the way it used to. It’s not that those things suddenly have less value or are dumbed down, but that we’re not measuring them fairly or correctly. (For a brilliant treatise on this, see Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You.)

Reading a book is a different experience than surfing the web, but you’re in dangerous and murky Andrew Keen territory to make the qualitative judgements Carr comes up with, as Asi notes. Reading a long, linear book is no guarantee that it’s automatically a deeper, more learned experience. (Have these people ever read John Grisham?).

So, I’ve just spent nearly two hours putting together this post – reading lots of material and becoming aware of a great deal more that I’ll look up when I need it, just as Einstein did. I’m reasonably sure he wasn’t that dumb. Am I?

Google Moon faked in a holodeck


I’m not actually a believer that NASA faked the moon landings but had an amusing moment looking through Google’s wonderful new Google Moon where there aren’t enough images to complete the 360-degree panorama. The result is that you see the grid of the pano and it looks like the backdrop of a studio. Or a holodeck, but then that doesn’t really exist either except in secret NASA labs.

[tags]googlemaps, moon, nasa[/tags]

Google’s Streetview

Google Streetview

So I’ve been a bit slow at blogging about Google’s Streetview as well as Microsoft’s Surface. I nearly didn’t write about either of them since the entire interweb has its tubes stuffed full of stories about them.

Anyway, on first glance I, like many others, thought “that’s interesting and possibly useful, but also a bit scary, especially for people and property caught in the photos”. So, for more strange Google Streetview sightings, take a look at the Top 15 from Mashable (there must be a lot of people with time on their hands out there). I can see a whole new Googleceleb culture arising…

Google Map anomolies and Twitter

Two posts in one, what a bargain.

Google Maps goes Escher

Karl sent me a link to Craig’s Flip Flop Flying blog because of his post about Google Maps anomalies. Basically as Google stitches together maps the aerial perspective gets mashed up. So you end up with these weird M.C. Escher maps. What’s amazing is how seamless they are. I wonder if any of these tile overlaps are done by hand or whether it’s all automated?


And as if that wasn’t enough Google Maps goodness for you, Yacco posted about Twitter Vision, a Google Maps mash-up showing the location of people’s Twitters in real-time. It’s inane (as Twittering is) but fascinating too to see the interweb working in real time – I’m always amazed to see how much activity is going on with these things.

Googlemap of Design Books

Markus Dressen's Googlemap of his books

Markus Dressen has laid out a selection of his favourite books and created a Googlemap of them. Most of them are design and art books and provide an interesting insight into his tastes. And it’s a clever idea too.

I noticed that he appears to be German and that one of his books was about the Volksboutique work of one of my colleagues here at the Bauhaus, Christine Hill. Anyone know who Markus is?

Thanks to Mike at Digital Agency for the link, which originally came via RandomCulture.

UPDATE: It really is a small connected world. Interaction designer, David Schmidt posted in the comments a link to some Flickr photos of Christine and Shelley Jackson. I had no idea they knew each other (and I’ve not met David in the flesh yet either). (Christine wants it known that she won the tennis match they’re relaxing after!).

So of course I mailed Christine who then replied explaining who Markus Dressen is:

Markus is not my student, he’s a force of nature. He’s a stellar designer based in Leipzig, and did the complete layout of my monograph.  I will show you a copy in Weimar, it will knock you over.  He is amazing.  We are actually about to reprint that, including 32 new pages for the Venice Edition, and I am so looking forward to spending more time with him.  He studied at the HGB in Leipzig, specializing in books, his thesis is a hand made Unikat, that is a feat of both layout and printing, not to mention hand binding and well, I just can’t do the work justice in an email.

Markus also is the brains behind the journal Spector Cut + Paste.

The HGB is also the home of the Spherical Robots project/group who have created some great interactive/installation concepts, including Bitfall.

Google and UNEP Map Environmental Change

Deforestation of Rondonia in the Amazon

Google and the United Nations Environmental Programme last week launched an addition to Google Earth called the Atlas of Our Changing Environment, which allows people to view images of environmental change and information overlaid onto the satellite images.

You can access them from the ‘Featured Content’ section of Google Earth, or you can look at the web version.

I find this convergence of interaction/information design and environmental/sustainability issues really interesting because a large part of the problem is making this stuff meaningful and visible to everyday people and hooks into the work we’re trying to do at the Omnium Creative Network. It goes to show that good visual design (and of course the data) can really have an impact.

I’ve known about the scale of deforestation in the Amazon for years, all the stats on football pitch sized patches being destroyed every hour, etc. But it’s not until you see an image like this (and you can get the 1970’s image overlaid too, to compare) that you really appreciate how awful it is. Most of these images from Rondônia are from about 500 miles up too. From the overlay info:

In 1975, the region was still relatively pristine, with much of the forest intact. By 1989, the distinctive fishbone pattern of forest exploitation had appeared and by 2001 had expanded dramatically.

Shocking. As are almost all of the before and after images.

Google Flight Sim

Me flying over South London somewhere...

Okay, so once again I’m so far behind the curve on this one I’ve wrapped around and am in front again (I reckon). Mark Caswell-Daniels’ Goggles – a flight sim using Google Maps is up there on my list of “things I wish I had done” (which is getting rather long these days).

It feeds into my slight obsession with Google Earth/Maps and some kind of God-complex I’m sure.

It’s a portfolio piece for Mark, so go visit his folio and someone give him some work. The bandwidth is costing him a fortune.

(Thanks to Iain at Crackunit for this one.)

Placeopedia – linking Wikipedia with Google Earth

COFA in Google Earth

No idea why I didn’t blog about this a while ago, but I just pulled Placeopedia’s feed into Google Earth. Placeopedia links Wikipedia articles with their geographic locations using Google Maps or Google Earth.

I was, of course, overjoyed to see where Punxsutawney Phil from Groundhog Day came from.

It (Placeopedia, not Groundhog Day – though Groundhog Day is an excellent film) is an excellent example of what can be achieved when API’s are open and relatively simple so that people can hook together different systems. Exactly what the web was built upon. It’s easy to see how this kind of interlinking might really expand into some incredible services (not least in cars and on mobiles, as we’re talking Google Maps).

So, here’s a picture of COFA and my office balcony outlined. If you have Google Earth (and if you haven’t, go and get it ) you can use this placemark to pay me a virtual visit.