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Google vs. The Dictionary: Where’s the trade-off?

The greatest thing I find about being a semi-technophobe is that I believe I can look at new technology through the eyes of the average consumer. I say semi-technophobe because although technology still bamboozles me as to how it works, I am not the sort to be staging protests outside Apple’s headquarters waving a copy of the Illiad and complaining how the iPad has ruined the delivery of the printed word. I’m quite delighted with myself that I am this way because I think it means I have a good understanding and appreciation as to what people want with technology.  This could be everything from the look and feel of an application to the amount of personal details you have to include to access a particular website.

Given the area I now work in, I find that every day I learn more and more about technology. However, I still don’t think I have uncovered the answer to the biggest technology question in my life to date: is a calculator really better than mental maths?

Of course, the average human brain couldn’t possibly work out the square root of 493,726 but within seconds of punching in the digits, the answer presents itself on a calculator. Obviously it is a device which makes things more efficient, but is there any cost?

From a young age my parents drilled my times tables into me and to this day it is still my brain’s greatest asset. I don’t know the square root of 493,726 but chances are I will know how much change I should get in a shop when I purchase my lunch. Chances are I will be able to work out how much petrol a car will need to get from Belfast to Dublin and what the cost of each mile will be. So yes, while my brain is limited, it can certainly do a hell of a lot of ground work. And why shouldn’t it!

Technology has developed an aura around it which makes people think it is making processes more efficient. I agree with this, however, what consumers should question is, in making this process more efficient, where is the trade-off?

In the case of the calculator, arguably a greater dependency on this device negates the need for competent mental maths. Therefore, a person does not need to develop this aspect of their brain and, dare I say it, might not be as smart as someone who has had to rely on their brain to work out calculations. I mean, let’s call a spade a spade.

My next example comes from a conversation I had with my mother a few days ago when we were discussing the use of Google as a dictionary over an actual physical dictionary. I was suggesting that being able to search for a word in a Google search engine and being able to access resources such as the online dictionary or Wikipedia has meant that finding out the meaning of words can be much easier. Let me give you an example:

I am having lunch with my friend Albert in a cafe. Albert is an architecture student and really enjoys what he studies. Being the son of an architect, I am pretty confident I know a thing or two about architecture and am sure I will be able to carry myself on whatever the subject. Now, one of Albert’s real architectural fetishes is the medieval period. He begins by saying he is making the replica of a medieval castle complete with a machicolation.

A who? A what?

Embarrassed that I presented myself as an extremely knowledgeable architecture buff I carry on without letting on I haven’t the foggiest idea what a machicolation is.

Then nature calls for Albert and I have approximately 2 mins to do some research. The phone comes out, the letters go in, the spelling gets changed, Wikipedia shows up, the toilet flushes, the webpage loads, the hand dryer roars, the phone gets pocketed, the door swings open……..the chancer smiles.

“Hi there Albert, yes that was very interesting what you were saying about machicolation which of course is a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, through which stones, or other objects, could be dropped on attackers at the base of a defensive wall.”  

This example played a big feature in my point to my mum in that access to a Google search engine 24/7 has meant that people can find out the meaning of words much more quickly. Great! No trade-off here then.  Wrong! Well according to my mum.

Her argument was that when you go to a dictionary to find out the meaning of a word, you are using your brain firstly, to find the right page. She recounted how she watched in disbelief how my younger sister struggled to find the right page in a dictionary for the word she was looking for. Secondly, when you reach the correct page, you then get the view of a full page where, not only can you see what the meaning of the word you are looking for is, but also other related words which you absorb all from viewing that one page. My mother is a complete technophobe and also incredibly bright hence, I find it hard to question her methods.

My overall opinion of this is that yes, the idea of having a dictionary in your pocket in the form of a phone is incredibly useful. I find I look up words much more on the spot rather than waiting until I get home to use a dictionary (usually by which time I will have forgotten to look up the word). However, no matter how Google-eyed we all get by technology I still think there will always be room on the shelf for a Collins or Oxford English Dictionary.

Ultimately, no one could deny there are aspects of technology which makes certain processes more efficient. However, what I would suggest is that there may be trade-offs (which the corporations won’t advertise) and it is for consumers to be aware of these during their use of that technology.

Cars were made because they would be faster than horses, but horses didn’t create the pollution which put a big hole in the sky resulting in the ice caps melting. That was a trade-off mankind accepted when the industrial revolution happened. Now, it is that trade-off which is coming back to bite us in the ass. I just hope that in the coming years, mankind has the brain power to solve problems like that one, and that we haven’t all been saturated away by the likes of Google. That would be the biggest trade-off of all.