A freshman student in an introductory class sent the following justification for purchasing an e-book for single variable calculus: “I prefer e-books almost exclusively, because of their CTRL-F feature.” With images from Dr. Who of the human race walking about in 2533 with Internet access embedded in each person’s forehead coming to mind, I drafted the following responses:“Ah, but books have a similar feature; surely you’ve heard of the index?” and “I believe you will find it difficult to tell your computer to search for the integral symbol.”
This email exchange helped me to articulate a problem that had been gnawing at me for some time—the use and abuse of the search and find function, and its effects on the life of the mind. Because of this quick keystroke, we expect the instant gratification of knowledge. We summon information with constant Google queries, music—almost any digitized music in the world—with a twiddle of our fingertips. Material goods soar through the ether, acquire matter in a mystical warehouse, and arrive posthaste at our doorstep for prompt consumption.
This expectation of immediacy can, if left unchecked, release a subtle parasite in our thinking process—the idea that we need not truly understand what we can instantly find with an Internet search. I first noticed this in myself during my graduate studies. Lost one afternoon in the black hole of Google Scholar searches, I confronted an elusive integral that I ought to have remembered how to solve. My mind—at least, the part of my mind that was craving a sandwich and a warm nap in the sun—shrugged and mumbled “Eh, I can always Google it.”
Thus begins the subtle dependence of the very substance of our thoughts on the instant answers of the find function: “Eh, I can always Google it.” Eh, I don’t really need to remember how to solve that, because now I have the luxury of almighty computational websites with their technically correct step-by-step computational explanations. Eh, I don’t need to write my quotes down in a journal and attribute them to their rightful owners; I can always CTRL-F it in Google Books. Never mind that in the struggle for the integral, I gain irreplaceable mathematical intuition and vital problem-solving skills. Never mind that in the inscription of a quote on a tangible journal page, the quote adheres to my memory.
Accustomed to answers served up in bold font in 0.0067 seconds, working diligently to arrive at an answer has fallen decidedly out of vogue. A crippling fear of acquiring the stigma attached to exerting effort keeps students from venturing an answer in my calculus class. There seems to be little excuse for hard work when you have libraries full of digitized books at the disposal of your string queries.The fear of looking like a bumbling tourist on the London tube has kept me with my nose buried in the A-Z map app, restricting my worldview to the three-by-two-inch screen. It seems a nuisance, an intrusion, to stop and ask for directions in a world where satellites know our very footsteps. As we shirk the vulnerability that accompanies being lost or confused, we miss the chance to think critically about the challenge at hand.
Reliance on search-and-find functions is a threat to our patience, our work ethics, our imaginations, our courage, but the most insidious temptation is a matter of false pride. In a strange world where failure is verboten and hard work is hidden, we’ve fallen victim to the delusion that there is some intrinsic merit in possessing the ability to summon a video of the Budapest Symphony playing Chopin, or a graph of a transcendental equation, or an image of a Monet on command. We do not master the things we search for capriciously on the Internet.
Despite my criticism of the handy keyboard shortcut, I have no wish to do away with the CTLR-F button. I enjoy highlighting a particular word on a page and pulling it from the document like a thread from an intricate weaving. A text editor with an advanced search and find feature enables me to build code by quickly building upon text patterns. Searching for graphs online has led me to creative, beautiful illustrations that serve as marvelous teaching aids. A quick GPS query returned me to a friend’s apartment when I was lost on the south side of Chicago on a quest or Ernest Hemingway’s house. This use of the search and find function is constructive, a far cry from the trigger reaction search wrought from my own distaste of struggling through a question. The CTRL-F key is a simple tool that may be used either to sculpt an argument, or to cater to an indiscriminate consumption of information.
The keystroke mutates from a useful tool to a deleterious mechanical reaction when problem-solving skills begin to atrophy as a result of overuse. The remedy requires elements of humility, honesty, and wonder. Can we acknowledge that instant answers are not necessarily better answers? Are we brave enough to write an integral out on paper and confront it head-on in all its mathematical majesty and accompanying frustration? Do we have enough patience for careful observation when we’re lost? Montaigne wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other man’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other man’s wisdom.” As the body of searchable information careens into ever-expanding territories, may we keep wisdom as a compass.