I've been mulling Ben Greenman's recent Lives column for a few days now.
Greenman recounts his 9 year old son's amazing felicity with using search engines to discern discrete facts. Presented with a report about the anaconda (the largest snake in the world) Greenman asks his son for the second largest. A few keystrokes later, the answer is revealed.
A month later Greenman attempts to answer the same question in a print encyclopedia. Despite an exhaustive read of the snake entry, he couldn't locate the second-largest snake. There was no easy way to search (even a good index would be unlikely to have "second-largest"), and so Greenman gave up. As he states, "What my son was able to do in 10 seconds, I was unable to do in 10 minutes."
Score one for Google. But then Greenman wonders if the sheer ease of plucking out facts inadvertently quenches curiosity. It would have been possible to figure out the second-largest snake from print sources, but it would have definitely required persistence; and possibly a willingness to consult numerous sources located in multiple places. This internal drive used to be the momentum behind research. A happy consequence was that those who persevered became experts, developing a deep contextual knowledge of whatever they were studying. Today's kids might settle for gathering atomized facts, and think their job is done.
So, where do we go from here? The answer isn't to bash Google, despite my overwrought headline. Parents and teachers need to reward sustained research, by asking (gently) why that factoid little Susie just presented matters. And in the long run search engines could/should offer the option to highlight the more contextually complex answers to an inquiry. We should enable Google to be like Paul Harvey, so we get the rest of the story.