When in need of information, be it a recipe or a repair tip, people are increasingly likely to pull out a digital device rather than ask another human being. In one British survey, only a quarter of children under 15 said they would look to their parents before Google for answers to their questions. That may be convenient for the mothers and fathers of young children in the perpetual “why” phase, but the ease of online search may be streamlining serendipitous conversations out of fashion. If all information is a Google search away, asking another person for help can feel like delegating a clerical task.
In fact, the website “Let Me Google That For You” (LMGTFY.com) exists to rebuke those who ask a friend something that they should have googled. The site’s creators describe it as “For all those people who find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than search for it for themselves.” The unstated premise is that asking for help is a rude imposition, one that reveals incompetence or laziness.
But relying on friends to supply even trivial knowledge is part of how relationships strengthen and grow. Brushing off small requests makes it harder to ask for big ones: there won’t be a history of help exchanged to make someone brave enough to be vulnerable.
LMGTFY has become popular enough that in 2012 it made Time’s list of the 50 best websites on the Internet. In their words, “Most people figured out a long time ago that when you want to know something, there’s no more reliable way to get an answer than to Google it. Some folks, however, need a gentle reminder.” Google, after all, aspires to be, in the words of co-founder Larry Page, the “perfect search engine,” one that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”
But even the best search algorithm can’t sort sites for a sense of empathy or community; that comes from people, not pages. If a friend asks me about a blown fuse, he may be looking not just for repair instructions, but sympathy. When I need to find the right temperature for toasting walnuts, if I ask a roommate, instead of a search engine, I might get a recipe recommendation or a story about baking gone awry.
These casual conversations strengthen the bonds of affection—what C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves describes as the humblest love, which serves as the base for all others: “But Affection has its own criteria. Its objects have to be familiar. We can sometimes point to the very day and hour when we fell in love or began a new friendship. I doubt if we ever catch Affection beginning.” The just-the-facts approach of a search engine precludes the stories, sympathy, and sense of affection that are reinforced by an incidental conversation.
Even new, online forms of association and friendship can suffer from the Google effect. Nick Yee, a senior research scientist at video game maker Ubisoft and the author of The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us, and How They Don’t, conducted interviews with the users of online roleplaying games (RPG’s) to find out how the easy availability of information affected the sociability of these communities.
Online RPG’s offer a microcosm of human interaction. Many of the earliest iterations of these games forced mutual dependence on players: there were no maps of the game world, so you had to trade stories with other players and sketch out the lay of the land together, much like stopping at a service station in a rural area to get directions from the locals. There were no central repositories of hints or step-by-step walk-throughs for quests, so if you got stuck on a mission, you needed someone with experience to talk you through it.
But gamers and companies have both worked to reduce the known unknowns of these worlds. For many of the players that Yee interviewed, these changes made life much easier for the characters they played within the game but less rich and interesting for the players themselves in real life. As information became available the pace of these online games became faster and faster, but the gameplay itself became lonelier. With exploration of the world unnecessary, conversation became an inconsiderate interruption, not part of the leisurely flow of the game.
If questions are brushed off as inconsiderate, in games or in day-to-day life, one might ask what important business they’re interrupting. The ease of the Internet can reduce busywork and free up time, but even Google autocomplete won’t tell us how to fill the time we’ve saved. Leisure is only an instrumental good, and even as online conveniences grant more time to spend with friends and family, they have chipped away at the natural cues to do so. And as the forces of circumstance that bind friends and acquaintances weaken, depending on someone comes to require a deliberate decision—and all the more effort.
Leah Libresco is an editorial assistant at TAC and blogs for Patheos at Unequally Yoked.