Artist Sabrina Jung
Artist Sabrina Jung

These are different times, I would say to all who agree with this question. On the contrary, not focusing on irrelevant things people are more capable and competent to do things more effectively than past generations. And is learning not about become more effectieve?

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by Brian Cathcart on July 28, 2009


General knowledge, from capital cities to key dates, has long been a marker of an educated mind. But what happens when facts can be Googled? Brian Cathcart confers with educationalists, quiz-show winners and Bamber Gascoigne

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009

One day last year a daughter of Earl Spencer (who is therefore a niece of Princess Diana) called a taxi to take her and a friend from her family home at Althorp in Northamptonshire to see Chelsea play Arsenal at football. She told the driver “Stamford Bridge”, the name of Chelsea’s stadium, but he delivered them instead to the village of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, nearly 150 miles in the opposite direction. They missed the game.

Such stories are becoming commonplace. A coachload of English schoolchildren bound for the historic royal palace at Hampton Court wasted an entire day battling through congested central London as their sat-nav led them stubbornly to a narrow back street of the same name in Islington. A Syrian lorry driver aiming for Gibraltar, at the southern tip of Spain, turned up 1,600 miles away in the English east-coast town of Skegness, which has a Gibraltar Point nearby.

Two complementary things are happening in these stories. One is that these people are displaying a woeful ignorance of geography. In the case of Stamford Bridge, one driver and two passengers spent well over two hours in a car without noticing that instead of passing Northampton and swiftly entering the built-up sprawl of London, their view continued to be largely of fields and forests, and they were seeing signs for Nottingham, Doncaste.

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The other is more subtle. Everybody involved in these stories has consciously handed over responsibility for knowing geography to a machine. With the sat-nav on board, they believed that they did not need to know about north or south, Spain or England, leafy Surrey or gridlocked Islington. That was the machine’s job. Like an insurance company with its call centre or a local council with its bin collections, they confidently outsourced the job of knowing this stuff, or of finding it out, to that little computer on the dashboard.

Here is another story. A former winner of the BBC quiz show “Mastermind” recently took part in a pub quiz which came down to a tiebreaker between his team and a group of young people who were relying on BlackBerrys. Anyone familiar with quizzes these days knows that this can happen, whether it is under the table or outside in the smokers’ zone; the combination of wireless internet access and Google searching is simply too powerful for some to resist and for others to prevent. In this case, happily, virtue triumphed and the team led by the Mastermind champion won. Then afterwards a young woman from the losing side came over and asked in baffled tones: “How did you get that?” So attuned was she to the idea that answering quiz questions was a task to be outsourced to the internet that she seemed not to understand the idea of general knowledge that was kept in the head.

Is this where we are heading? A Google search, once you have keyed the words in, takes a broadband user less than a second, and the process will only get quicker.

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Picture Credit: Michael Harvey, rickh710, mattboschetti (both via Flickr)

(Brian Cathcart is a professor of journalism at Kingston.)


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