“Let me look that up” the Smart Phone effect

I love my smart phone!  I am plugged in!  I get my e-mail, texts, photos, Google, Facebook… oh! and I can make phone calls.  It is at the ready whenever I need to see what’s going on or need a quick answer.

Pocket computing has certainly evolved from the days when it was limited to a pocket calculator.  We seek everything from movie schedules to book series, from ancient authors to constitutional law, from phrase translations to animal species, etc., etc.  For quick encyclopedic or dictionary-like information it is a wonderful thing–just think how many spousal arguments have been headed off with, “I don’t think that’s quite right, honey.  Why don’t we Google it?”

On the other hand, sometimes accuracy requires comparing information from multiple sources.  Sometimes, encouraged by the convenience and speed of smart-phone- and Google-searches, we neglect the process of finding good information for more complex questions that cannot, in fact, be simply “looked up“.  Now, I don’t mean a questions like life, the universe and everything (the answer is clearly 42).  But, I do think we have a tendency to assume that facts are clear when in most fields facts are pretty rare outside of high-school math or spelling (and, even then!).

You may ask a question which seems to have a clear factual answer waiting at the other end, but so often there is not.  For example: When was the Declaration of Independence written?  You expect to look up the answer and find a date, but it is seldom that simple, as with the case of the Declaration: do you mean when it was completed or when it was started?  Which version of the Declaration are you inquiring after–one of the drafts Jefferson wrote or the final draft revised by Congress?  Let’s say you ask your original question–maybe you put it to one of those deceptively helpful websites, such as Answers.com–if someone responds with a specific date he or she could be [correctly or erroneously] answering any of the listed qualifying questions!  He or she may not even bother to tell you which answer you got!  (If you really want to challenge this idea, then Google what Planned Parenthood does with tax-payer’s dollars–if you pick five different sources you will probably get nearly that many answers!)

I’m not saying that I do not “look things up“–I do it all the time!–I just think we as a society are being conditioned by the ease of smart phones, tablets and the search engine in general to expect straightforward factual answers that are easily available, regardless of the complexity of the subject.  Sometimes a question is a really good one and we should take the trouble to dig a little deeper.  Obviously, I am painting with a broad brush, but I know how busy and chaotic my life is and how desirable quick information and easy answers are, so my writing this is as much a warning to myself as anyone else.  It is ridiculous when I stop, think and have to admit that I cannot figure out how I managed before I got the smart phone…  When was that?  I got it when this model first came out on the market…  Hmm, let me look that up!

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

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