Friday, July 6, 2012

The Problem with "Googling"...

Postman starts off chapter 5 of Technopoly with a great bit that I think sums up much of his view of the "problems" of infatuation with technology:

"Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. This requires the development of a new kind of social order, and of necessity leads to the rapid dissolution that is associated with traditional beliefs. Those who feel most comfortable in Technopoly are those who are convinced that technical progress is humanity's supreme achievement...they also believe that information is an unmixed blessing....Technopoly flourishes when the defenses against information break down." (p.71)

I find that passage really interesting, because I find myself very comfortable with technology (not necessarily with the idea of Technopoly), and it makes me wonder if I'm a Technopolist in the making. Or maybe already made...and I'm just not fully aware of it.

In this chapter of the book he builds the case that there truly is such a thing as too much information, and that our culture actually celebrates having free and ready access to an incomprehensible amount of information. He talks about several institutions that once provided some "information control," but no longer do so--at least not in the same way that they once did--including the court of law, the family, and the school.

As a teacher, I find that last idea the most challenging. Don't we want our students to have more access to information? Don't we want them to interact with ideas outside of their own, and their classmates', and their teachers'? I suppose books have always provided new ideas to wrestle with, but how about the wild and wooly world of the Internet?

Yet, when I'm reflective about how my students think and act...I think Postman is basically right. My students gravitate toward the technological solution to their problems. When confronted with a topic they know little about, of course they google it. Google has made things so "easy" for conducting research (more on that in a moment), of course they'll just type in a question and go with what ever the first link is that pops up. If they have to write a research paper, they tend to first head to Wikipedia. And why not? Who wouldn't use a free online encyclopedia to find out more about a topic they know little about?

The thing is--and again, I think Postman would agree--these technologies are changing the meaning of words. Are students really doing "research" when they google a question? (And since when is "google" a verb?) If they just blithely accept whatever the top hit is on Google as the Truth, are they really researching? I've had students--okay, remember that they are middle schoolers--say things like, "But I found it must be true, right?"


And this doesn't even begin to touch on plagiarism and how easy it is to pluck not just words and phrases but complete ideas from a website.

Free and easy access to all the world's information at the click of a mouse or swipe of a's overwhelming. I think Postman might be right about this: without some filters or baffles to control the flow of information, we're destined for Technopoly.

So what do we do about this? Shall we turn students loose on the World Wide Web for "research?" And if so, under what circumstances? And further, at what age is this appropriate? Elementary school? Middle school? High school? College? Graduate school?

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