The Google Crutch And Why I Refuse Maps

March 28th, 2014

Recently when I was renting a car in Knoxville, the manager offered me a paper map, with the route drawn out to my hotel. I politely told him that I didn’t want one. He asked me if I had ever been to Knoxville, I said no. He asked, how would I know where to go. I replied, I’ll use my GPS. He urged me to take a map, in case my GPS didn’t work. I told him what he suspected–I wouldn’t even know how to use a map. He was shocked, but not really. Since I started driving, I’ve always at least, had MapQuest, and not to long thereafter, I had a GPS, first a standalone unit, and later an App on my smartphone. I have never had to rely on a paper map, and wouldn’t even know what to do with it. When people try to give me directions, I just smile and nod. Now, my sense of direction is pretty good, but in a place I’ve never been to, I have to rely on the GPS.

This is what has been dubbed the “Google Crutch.” I have delegated entirely a task to a device.  There are lots of other examples of the Google Crutch with me. Perhaps the most striking is that I never, ever write anything out by hand. Ever. The only times I ever put a pen in my hand is to write out a check, address an envelope, or autograph a book. I find all of these tasks extremely tedious. Filling out a lengthy greeting card, at the end, gets uncomfortable. Whatever stabilizing muscles in my hand there were tuned to hold a pen have weakened. (This should sound a note of caution to those that prohibit laptops in class–you will soon have an entire generation incapable of effectively taking notes by hand). But on a deeper level, I don’t think I could even effectively write with a pen. My fingers type when I think. That connection is much stronger than any ability to move a pen. I’ve been able to delegate all acts of recording information to a device. I wrote my entire book without a single piece of paper. My office is entirely paperless, except for a few rare books. This never ceases to amaze colleagues and students. They ask, how can you possibly work like that? I can’t imagine how people work otherwise.

I could go on. I don’t bother memorizing any phone numbers or addresses (other than my home address and phone number in Staten Island). I usually don’t remember my schedule for a given day, but rely on a series of reminders to get me to the right places on time (Google Now even tells me when I need to leave for an event, in light of the traffic). Between GMail and Google Drive, I can search everything I’ve ever written to find anything, in a few seconds. All of my Kindle books are also searchable. My blog serves as a permanent repository of my fleeting thoughts. I can’t ell you how often I google some idea I randomly have, only to remember that I wrote about it a few years ago (really hitting home that there is nothing new under my sun).

And you know what? It all works pretty well.

Now, you may be appalled by this. But you need not be. In Average is Over (an excellent book I’ll have more on later), Tyler Cowen writes about the Google crutch. As technology evolves, we shift the way we learn, delegating certain tasks to the technology. This new opportunity cost gives us the ability to perfect other skills.

The Google crutch, if I may call it that, influences how we think and how we learn. There’s now good systematic evidence about how Google changes our mental capacities, and I think most of us have experienced this personally as well. When people use Google more, they lose some of their ability— or at least willingness— to remember facts. After all, why should you keep track of all that stuff? If it is a factual question, the answer probably is right at your fingertips, especially with smart phones and iPads. In similar fashion, it seems that people who manage accounts became less skilled at some memory functions once they obtained cheap paper, writing instruments, accounting books, and other means of keeping track of figures. …

Returning to the present, Google is making a lot of the memory arts fall away altogether. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean, as critics such as Nicholas Carr have alleged, that we are becoming stupider. First, we presumably learn something useful through Google, and that information also gives us broader background knowledge for understanding and interpreting other facts about the world, whether they come from Google or not. Second, we have become much better at

searching for answers, and that too is a skill. Rather than remembering a fact, I often remember how I can best search for a fact. A lot of my searching is done through my blog, which catalogs parts of what I know, and my Gmail account, where I store useful information. Where am I having lunch with Steve Teles tomorrow? I don’t remember, but I do remember that I ought to search for “Steve Teles lunch” in my Gmail account and I will arrive at the right answer very quickly. I also have developed a good sense of when it is better to search through Google and when it is better to search through Twitter; for instance, search through Twitter when you are looking for rumors or for very current information, say within the last half day or so. From what I see, most people prefer to give up some memory to enjoy this symbiotic relationship with modern search.

I don’t think there is any conceivable way I could manage my schedule and output under the old regime. My productivity thrives on this just-in-time style.

The natural rejoinder to this post, is “What happens if your phone breaks?” Well, I’ll get a new one the same day. The better question is, what happens if you are in a place where your phone has no access to the internet. Or more precisely, what happens if there is some sort of natural disaster, and there is no internet, period. I’ve given this a lot of thought, especially because I live in Houston, which is in the plane of tropical Hurricanes. First, I’ve taken numerous preparations. I have many backup batteries, as well as a solar-powered USB charger (it works!). Cellular signals usually work even after the power and cable lines are cut. Second, usually cellular services are among the first services to be put back online. I’ll probably have a cell phone before I have power in my home. Third, the law school has a private generator, and I’ve learned it was up and running fairly quickly after Hurricane Ike.

Now, what happens if something really bad happens, and these backup options fail for more than a few days. At this point, we’re all in trouble. Civil society decays very quickly when there is no access to communication and transportation for any prolonged time. Now, checking devices is the least of my worries.