How long do you go these days without knowing the answer to a random question that pops into your head? Two seconds? Three? Maybe the better question is: How long does it take to type a question into your web browser?
The internet is a veritable geyser of information, available to anyone capable of typing a few words and hitting Enter. Conduct an online query at any given time and you’re part of a staggering statistic: 3.7 million Google searches happen every minute. With numbers like that, it seems clear we’re hunting for responses to all kinds of questions online—big or small. Which means we’re leaving the answer to some of life’s most important questions in Siri’s hands. In the past week alone, I’ve looked up physical symptoms and treatments online, surfed around for parenting advice, and combed through comments on how crate train a puppy. To say nothing of browsing multiple restaurant and product reviews. And this brings up another point about seeking internet advice: it’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole.
Turning to tech for answers is fast, convenient, and instantly gratifying. But what if you’re someone who prizes stories, and context, and connection? What if you suspect that the most compelling answers are more nuanced than rote? What if you’ve come to believe that no one on Yelp shares your quirks about service or ambience? Well in that case, it’s hard not to come out favoring human intelligence over artificial.
Turning to tech for answers is fast, convenient, and instantly gratifying. But what if you're someone who prizes stories, and context, and connection?
I worry we’ve gotten so accustomed to outsourcing the pursuit of knowledge to our keyboards that we fail to think how much better the advice might be if it came from an actual person. Okay, perhaps you don’t need human help securing plane tickets when Expedia can accomplish this in a fraction of the time. But what happens after you land is often best orchestrated by a savvy travel agent versus dictated by TripAdvisor reviews from people who know nothing about you.
Ironically, the internet is awash with articles cautioning against ever taking advice (health, professional, relationship, parenting or otherwise) from…the internet. There must be a reason that internet advice gets a bad rap. Search engine algorithms and autocomplete functions lull us in to thinking what we’re searching for is common, and thus that the top answers are true and vetted. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Oftentimes, a search engine is reacting to patterns of data that cause false but popular results to rise to the top.
Google vs. grandma
All this is to say, employing a little critical thinking about the answers your mobile phone is serving up is a good idea. Arguably, Google knows so much about us that when it points us toward an answer online, it may be on the right track. But think about how often the ads that pop up on your laptop miss the mark. Then ask yourself: is it good to trust Google with certain questions? Even leaving aside privacy concerns, internet search results aren’t customized to our needs with respect to content and context the way advice from our grandmother is.
Even leaving aside privacy concerns, internet search results aren’t customized to our needs with respect to content and context the way advice from our grandmother is.
There’s another reason to think twice before turning to the internet for answers, especially if you have other options. According to Reuters, "The Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering the way our brains work…." The article quotes Gary Small, author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, who notes that the tech-savvy "digital generation" is "always scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even damage neural networks." And, relying too heavily on the internet affects our personal networks, too. As Small explains, "There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the ability to read emotional expressions and body language."
Chasing slow answers
I doubt very many of us consciously turn away from technology when we have a burning question out of concern for our brains. But maybe it’s time we did. Even if you can suppress concerns about the neurological impact of tech-enabled quests for information, consider the behavioral costs as well. As a parent, I’m not only annoyed by my daughter’s preference for Siri’s answers over my own because it makes me feel less useful, I’m also worried about her growing appetite for immediate, digital solutions. If I force her to take the time to seek out answers elsewhere—like the library, school or from other people—I can’t help but believe she’d exercise important but vanishing states of mind, such as curiosity and patience.
We know that our stress levels elevate the more information we take in and the more time we spend online. Perhaps these daily searches for information are the right place to start backing off from tech and moving toward more human interactions.
One crucial difference between information we glean from tech and information we get from humans is the wisdom factor. Studies show that wisdom is attained as we age and can draw upon a lifetime’s worth of experiences, decisions and results, when pondering a decision or choosing a next move. Take mentors (human ones) as an example. Business coaches and mentors provide incalculable support to many executives. It’s the personal connection and wisdom shared that make mentors so valuable.
Hired by AirBnB at age 52, Chip Conley writes about the experience of offering his new colleagues, many of them twenty years younger, emotional intelligence in exchange for digital intelligence: “I was surrounded by folks who were tech-savvy — but were perhaps unaware that being “emo-savvy” could be just the thing to help them grow into great leaders. I realized that we expect young digital-era leaders to miraculously embody relationship wisdoms, with very little training, that we elders had twice as long to learn.” Even in a company immersed in the latest and greatest tech, the human factor is key.
“I was surrounded by folks who were tech-savvy — but were perhaps unaware that being “emo-savvy” could be just the thing to help them grow into great leaders." - Chip Conley
Revisit the campfire
For centuries of human civilization, elders were the storytellers. The oldest members of any community shared crucial information and skills with younger generations. It’s hard not to feel that this dynamic has been erased in our society today, especially with the opposite happening: members of the older generations are being passed over for jobs, considered obsolete because they didn’t grow up with the latest tech. (And, the age at which this starts to happen keeps getting younger.) Far from being a respected cohort of society, our elders are at risk of being sidelined by our fixation with everything that is younger, faster, and newer. We don’t seem to care as much about traditions and stories, rendering their accumulated wisdom less relevant with every passing year.
Try an experiment: the next time you need to know at what temperature sugar becomes caramelized, or who won the NBA playoffs in 1987, don’t Google it. Sit for a minute and think about what living, breathing, human knows the answer to that question. Then, ask him or her. I can’t promise you’ll get your answer quickly. But I can promise you will get something in addition to an answer. You will hear a memory or an anecdote that opens a window into someone else’s world and experience. In other words, you’ll forge a connection. You’ll also get a break from scrolling through endless web pages of useless information in search of an answer that matters to you. And finally, I’ll bet that by going human, rather than tech, you will have made someone feel valued. Something I can promise you Siri doesn’t yet have the answer for.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. Once a professional chef, she now primarily cooks for a discerning party of four… with mixed success. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Through her writing, she enjoys tackling the thorny issues around parenting, generational cohorts, and cultural trends, endeavoring to do so without being too snarky.