It's now commonplace to observe, "We have more information than ever at our fingetips" or "You can look anything you want up online" or some such. These are the banal, cliched observations that serve as lead-ins for discussions of "life in the information age." People usually say this to lament information overload -- how there is so much information to sift through now that nobody can possibly keep up. But the general ease of being able to look up particular factoids -- such as (for example) the quadratic formula -- is assumed to be a pure good. Why carry that information around in a textbook when you can call it up effortlessly on your phone?

As psychologist Daniel T. Willingham reminds us, though, there is more to it than simply calling up a formula and spitting out the answer. If somebody knows that the quadratic formula solves the quadratic equation, and that this equation can help solve problems such as how high to build a road so that trucks can drive underneath them, great. First they should use Google to get the shortcut to the formula, and then go forth and solve quadratic equations.

On the other hand: if somebody merely knows the quadratic formula, without any sense of where it came from or why it is useful, being able to plug numbers into the formula is not that impressive. Indeed, people may carry around the illusion that they understand something -- they plugged the numbers into the formula and got the right answer on the test, after all. In fact this is simply a mechanical act, not a true demonstration of understanding.

We could think of many other examples to illustrate this phenomenon, quadratics are just one.

Willingham's essay brings an old point into fresh new relief: it has always been easy to fake understanding without actually understanding something at all. Some people excel at cocktail party conversation in which they pretend they've read a book or seen a movie that they have actually never even heard about. "Fake it till you make it" is an age-old strategy that has nothing to do with Google's emergence onto the scene.

There is a crucial difference between old-fashioned fakery and today's Google-born illusion of mastery, though. The faker knows the limits of their knowledge, and part of the thrill is seeing if they can hide this fact. There's an element of performance in that cocktail party patter, and an inner self-knowledge is fully at play. Meanwhile the person who uses Google to look up the quadratic formula may truly believe they understand it. And, in many cases, they do not.

What's to be done about this dangerous conflation of surface knowledge with actual understanding? Google is here to stay, of course. I use it daily, multiple times each and every day, and could not imagine life without it.

So we're not going back to how it used to be. The more productive course, perhaps, would be to lobby Google to deprecate decontextualized factoids in its search results. People will always seek the bullseye answer that solves an immediate problem, and there's nothing much we can do with that dimension of human nature. But we can at least filigree those bullseyes with context and background, and trust that some people will find that useful.

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