Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Against the Googlification

Hari Seldon, one of the main characters in the Foundation series written by Isaac Asimov, comes to the realisation that scientific research has become nothing more than a rehashing of ideas developed by others. Seldon, himself a scolar in mathematics (a less than well respected form of science) notices that the grand scientific centers on Trantor actually don’t do any research anymore. Technological progress has come to a complete stop, even maintaining the existing level of technology is impossible. The study of humanoria is reduced to secundary rewrits of what previous scolars said who themselves rewrit of what others said. etc.

Asimov wrote science fiction, but even science fiction often bears societal critique. I remembered the Foundation series when I was confronted with various papers by students from different majors. In almost all of them I noticed the error of Googlification.

The internet has opened access to tons of valuable resources, resources that were way beyond the means and abilities of the average information scavenger ‘in the old days’. Some 20 years ago I had to go to libraries and archives to seek out information. No laptop, but pen and paper (because the laptop was not allowed). Things really have improved, but -sadly- this has led to serious side effects. Effects I call Googlification.

For one, Googlification means that the webpage with the highest page ranking  is considered the best source of information. No longer is the quality of the source valued in terms of content. A perfect source could be on page 10 (like digging in the old archives), but how many students go that far. In fact, isn’t it true that pages increase their rank because they are visited often and linked to the most?
Secondly, Googlification is the practice of copy/paste. Oh, the clever student might even go so far as to rewrite it in his own style but -judging from the times and extent of this practice- only few make the effort.

Thirdly, Googlification is visible when you see complete chapters annotated by a single, albeit complex URL. But, since institutes for higher education appear to judge more and more on form than on content, that practice is considered acceptable. The simple fact that such a URL can be gone within weeks doesn’t seem to bother most. Apparently one has forgotten the why of annotations….To be able to validate the sources you used.

The Digital Realm is littered with complete copies of papers than can be and are Googlified by the next generation of students and researchers. For Hari Seldon, or Asimov, this was a clear indication that civilisation was on it’s way down. Oh, and don’t ask about the popularity of mathematics or science and technology related studies in the western world.

I have no illusion that this practice will stop, but I do have this warning: a simple copy paste isn’t going to cut it.

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