What it Costs to “Ask Google” and Why It’s Cool to be Uncertain

I recall my two-year volunteer church service in Hong Kong more than 42 years ago. My sweat and the excessive humidity soon rotted away my leather watch band, leaving me with no convenient way to tell time. Fortunately, my companion and I most often visited vibrant, mixed use residential areas where ground-level one-room shops, called “pou-taus,” were prevalent. Each of these pou-taus prominently displayed a clock on the back wall. Because we had scheduled numerous appointments, knowing the correct time became critical.

On one occasion, I asked my companion to poke his head in the doorway of the nearest pou-tau and tell me the time.

“It’s 6: 42,” he said over his shoulder.Clock showing 6:42

“Good.” I smiled confidently. “We have plenty of time before our 7:00 appointment.”

A few minutes later, we walked by another pou-tau. Glancing up, I saw the time: 6:40.

“Oh no!” I yelled. “Something’s wrong! That can’t be right!”

Then it became a race from pou-tau to pou-tau. We soon realized that every shopkeeper had a different time on their clock. What had begun as a certainty that we had plenty of time became anxiety about being late. When we only had one source of information, we seemed quite confident in that information. Once we expanded our sources, our degree of confidence dropped dramatically, leaving us anxious.

From 1962 to 1981, “the most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, signed off his television news segments with, ” . . And that’s the way it is,” and we believed him. We harbored no suspicions that Walter was withholding any important truths from us, or that he was skewing the facts to fit a political agenda. We enjoyed the certainty of his voice and the surety of its message.

We live today in a world rich with news sources. We can construct our perception of “reality” from information gleaned from several broadcast news stations, numerous cable news sources, so called “info-tainment” programs, newspapers, blogs, vlogs, tweets, social media sites, podcasts, and word of mouth. We don’t need to wait for the nightly news anymore. We can get it as fast as it can be fed to us, and the “feeding” is much more personalized. We can receive just the right kind of news, with the most appealing “slant,” sent directly to a device in our hands, with audio piped only to us through earbuds in our ears. And it isn’t just news. We basically have the world’s collective knowledge at our fingertips. We no longer need to wonder about anything! Because we fear uncertainty, we are relieved to believe we no longer need to be uncertain about anything. In the time it takes to wonder, we can pull up a massive volume of possible “answers” to our questions.

Sounds great, right? But what’s the cost?

Based on my experience with the clocks, one obvious cost in having so much data at our fingertips is an increase (yes, that’s right) increase in uncertainty. What are some other costs? In our yet-to-be-published book, Surviving by a Thread, we discuss benefits of uncertainty and outline some ways in which technology is creating a situation where, ironically, we are surrounded by data but ever-lacking understanding or wisdom.

From Chapter Six, “Embracing Uncertainty,” we read about another side-effect of attempting to eliminate uncertainty:

Chuck continued, “I’ve only recently gotten into the habit of using my smartphone to give me step by step verbal directions to wherever I’m going. Until now, I’ve been very proud of my ability to navigate, even in the most unfamiliar locations, even if it meant calculating directions based on shadows and the time of day. After a few weeks of ‘Okay Google,’ however, I’ve noticed that my internal direction finder is being supplanted by the soothing voice of . . . of whoever that woman is on Google. I no longer even look at landmarks or wonder what the shadows are telling me. I have turned into a bit of a robot. It scares me to the point I now limit the number of times I will ask Google for directions. And asking for directions is just one question we can ask of our technology. We can apparently remove uncertainty about nearly everything! Just ask Google!” 

We quickly lose our capacities. We no longer have to remember phone numbers, thoughtfully plan out a route to a destination,  communicate that route verbally to a friend, or exercise patience. We are willingly and gleefully stunting ourselves. The book also touches on the mental clutter and triviality that can take over our lives as we immerse ourselves in data:  

Another benefit [of uncertainty] is in setting priorities. In the past, we made mental notes to look up an answer to a question. Half the time we forgot about the question, thus allowing our own faulty memories to act as a kind of filter allowing only the most important questions to survive. Now, we clutter our minds with the most trivial questions and easy answers. We distract ourselves with triviality.

Some surprising benefits of uncertainty are also found in the book:

. . Other benefits relate to our ability to think and to solve problems. When we’re left to wonder, we often form hypotheses, do diligent research and form reasoned arguments. Now, we simply accept what is so quickly served to us by a search engine. I foresee some problems with this as our children move into adulthood. . .

The solution is not to avoid technology, but to use it differently. The book offers some specific examples of how to use uncertainty and miraculous, adventure-producing technology in beneficial ways, especially with our children:

“Above all,” Chuck continued, “I think we should recognize that uncertainty is very much related to curiosity. Let’s make sure our children’s curiosity is rewarded not with quick, conversation-ending answers, but with stimulating journeys.”