Any writer or journalist who laughed too hard at today’s BBC News blooper (in which the channel displayed the wrong UN logo after a quick Google image search) should check themselves. Under the glare of pressing deadlines, we’ve all been guilty of using Wikipedia as our primary source, or fact-checking a story via Google.
It’s not just journalists who do this though. I know teachers and even university lecturers who have prepared their classes through Internet searching. Of course they know the risks; but it’s just so much more convenient, and so much faster, than trawling through books. In time-pressed professions, the temptation to take shortcuts is often too hard to resist.
Trouble is of course, the Internet is far from foolproof. It is the ultimate unreliable narrator of modern life; generated and re-generated constantly by billions of imperfect users all around the world. If we are the Internet, then it stands to reason that some of the Internet is going to be a bit thick. And so it proves – open-source sites like Wikipedia are riddled with inaccuracies; fans often update the Internet Movie Database with facts they wish were true but probably aren’t. So if you’re using this kind of site as part or even all of your research base, you’re likely to come unstuck – just as it proved at BBC towers this afternoon.
This leads us to a bigger and more interesting idea, one that’s explored in the famous article ‘Is Google making us stupid?’ The writer, Nicholas G Carr, argues that the web-enabled world is increasingly full of generalists, because the simplicity and prolificacy of Internet search has removed the need for us to learn or retain information. No-one needs experts anymore – just web browsers. Thanks to Google, everyone can ‘know’ the answer to anything.
Or, as was proved today, the Internet has provided yet another way for people to make fools of themselves.
[The Carr article is a few years old, but if you’ve never read it, you really should.]