The Epistemology of Google

e·pis·te·mol·o·gy — the theory of knowledge, 
especially with regard to its methods,
validity, and scope
— Google Definitions

“Daddy, what is the meaning of life?” says the child.

“It’s complicated,” says the dad.

“Why don’t you ask Google?”

Laugh if you will but the question makes perfect sense to kids. Google knows everything doesn’t it? “What’s the weather?,” “How do I get to San Francisco?”, and even  “Why is the sky blue?” The big question is: “What doesn’t Google know?” Or, stated another way, “What knowledge can’t we outsource to Google?”

Knowing Facts vs. Gaining Understanding

It really comes down to two different kinds of knowledge: knowing facts and gaining understanding. The Farnam Street blog has a good description of this  and there’s a great video of Richard Feynman explaining it.  In summary:

  • Knowing Facts. You know what something is called and what it looks like. This is the type of information that Google is very good at.
  • Gaining Understanding. Taking various bits of information and really making it your own? This is the type of thing that you can’t ask Google because it’s about changing who you are (i.e., learning).

One good way to know the difference is the difficulty of what you’re reading or watching. If you can read it quickly you’re probably reading for facts. Reading for understanding requires you to sit down at the foot of the author and realize that things may not make sense in the beginning. I think of true learning as fundamentally changing myself. Kind of like in the Terminator 2 movie where the T-1000 changes his shape in the face of adversity.

Knowing Facts

So what does Google know:

  • Define a word (like epistemology)?
  • What’s happening in the news?
  • Who starred in the princess bride?
  • When is Mothers Day?
  • How many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?

Rad Bradbury had a great section on knowing facts in Fahrenheit 451. The book is a metaphor on how books can be explosive with ideas. But the government can provide so many facts that people don’t have room for ideas:

“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Filling in the Gaps

Data and facts can be useful but you need a framework to use them. William Poundstone has a great book on the topic called Head in the Clouds: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy. Poundstone’s key point in the book is that Google can’t teach you what you need to Google. In order to do that, you need a framework of understanding.  Facts are like bricks in a wall of knowledge. There can be some gaps and the wall will maintain its structural integrity. But if we remove too many, you have bricks hanging in midair and the wall collapses.

Gaining Knowledge

Gaining knowledge is about more than gathering facts. The best guide to gaining knowledge is from How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. The book was written in 1940 and revised in 1972 and it holds up incredibly well. The key idea is that to read a book well, you don’t just read the words or learn the key points. You need to understand the knowledge inside that book and let it change you — which takes effort. For a summary of the key points, the Farnam Street blog does a good write up. But if you really want to learn from these guys, you really have to read the book.

In short, the book says that an engaged reader needs to ask the following questions:

  1. What type of book am I reading? What do I hope to gain by reading it?
  2. What is the author’s high level points / argument?
  3. How does the author make this argument? At this point you don’t agree or disagree with the author by bringing any predefined prejudices to the argument.
  4. After reading the whole argument, going back and asking “Is it true in whole or in part?”
  5. For the pieces that you find true, “What are you going to do about it and how does it change your world view?”

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury talks about what makes an engaged reader. These are the people the government is concerned about. As one of the rebels says, there are three things needed to engage with a book:

  1. Quality Information: “What does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more `literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail.”
  2. Leisure: “[When] you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four wall televisor…. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”
  3. Action: “The right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the inter-action of the first two. “

If this all sounds difficult, that’s the point. You can’t expect to have other people do your thinking for you. You need to pose questions and answer them. You need to argue with the author once you’ve understood him or her.

Why is this Important?

Google in many ways is like the world’s most awesome encyclopedia or your friend with a photographic memory who watches TV all the time. He’s  a great guy to have around but not someone you should trust with important decisions. In an age when you can type a few keystrokes and feel like you’re changing the world it’s hard to put in all that effort.

But getting back to the original question, the reason that Google can’t answer “What is the meaning of life?” is that it needs to be figured out by living. It’s a question that’s only answered by learning and discussion. Basically, it requires gaining knowledge throughout your life.