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Friday, August 8, 2014

"Google is not a synonym for research."

I just ran across an interesting quote that at first intrigued me, and then pissed me off. The quote was taken from author Dan Brown’s 2010 novel, The Lost Symbol 

“Google is not a synonym for research.”

At first, I got a chuckle out of the “off-the-cuff” statement. As a man in his 40’s, I appreciate the basic sentiment of what Dan Brown is talking about. Far too often during encounters with my younger friends I discover they only think they know about an issue related to current events. More often than not the case is that they only actually possess just a cursory knowledge of the matter.

Photo courtesy of Amazon

I believe its a product of our younger generation's reliance on their handheld devices for the bulk of their information. Seriously Millennials, how much detail can you glean about the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, for example, by only using twitter as your primary means of news? When I was in my 20’s most people subscribed to weekly periodicals such as Time, Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report and etc. At the bare minimum, everyone at least read a newspaper daily.

Then there were the evening news shows. Growing up, and even into my young adulthood, I made it a point to watch Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings go over world events each night. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but I was being suckled at the teat by some of the most experienced news journalists of that time.

The younger generation's concept of news

Flash forward to today. One of my best friends is 27-years old. He never reads a newspaper or magazine, seldom watches television news or listens to objective news radio. Almost all of his news consumption is done using the 2.31 x 4.5” screen of his iPhone. I have a running joke with him in which I tease him about the way he gets his news: “if an event is not reported in less than 140 characters it might as well have never happened.” In fact, a recent study says 2/3 of Americans aged 14-30 get their news from social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. We're talking about 68% of that demographic!!!

"I just finished reading a tweet about Ebola. Good, now I can skip the News-Hour on PBS...so boring."
Photo Courtesy of Zimbio

This problem came to a head recently when I got into an argument with that same friend surrounding the West African Ebola outbreak. He made a statement in which he unwittingly repeated a GOP political talking point, erroneously believing it to be the truth. I’m paraphrasing of course, but he said something to the effect of, “it’s just a matter of time before Ebola gets to America… Hell, there’s a doctor in Guatemala that has it already.”

I immediately challenged my friend on where he gathered that information because I knew it to be erroneous. In fact, the statement actually has its link to a Georgia Representative Phil Gingrey, who was on a conservative talk show trying to stoke fear of young unaccompanied minors entering the 
U. S. illegally. Here is an excerpt from what Rep. Gingrey (R) actually said:

"It's been said that the United States has found over 70 people from Ebola-stricken African countries entering our country from the southern border since January of this year,"
"We gotta stop them illegal children from bringing ebola into our country!"
Photo courtesy of Rawstory

When pressed about where he got that information, Gingrey’s handlers pointed reporters in the direction of the conservative news site Breitbart, a favorite among conservative millennials who favor its cell phone app because of its pithy, bite-sized summaries of topical news items.
That’s the problem in a nutshell that Dan Brown is talking about when he says that Google is not synonymous with research.
But is Dan Brown only partially correct in his assessment?

Could anyone without a secret security clearance have actually researched America's clandestine spying on its own citizens before Snowden's leaks became public?

Consider the recent revelation of widespread unauthorized National Security Agency wiretapping of Americans by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Dan Brown is legendary for his work on his bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. It has been reported that Brown spent hours of exhaustive research at the Vatican archives and other facilities researching primary sources for his book. Brown would argue that the amount of depth and detail which characterizes his work would be impossible if he had limited his research to only Google searches.

But what are we to make of that argument when we compare it to the thousands of documents leaked by Edward Snowden? Because of their sensitive nature, it would be impossible for a novelist to have access to the information Snowden leaked which is now widely available and accessible via Google search. In fact, an argument could be made that a Google search of what information the NSA gathered from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone would be superior to a request to the NSA using a Freedom of Information Act request. So yes, in that case Google is synonymous with research.

That brings me to my next point in this debate and why Dan Brown’s statement made me so angry. Many people have already forgotten about the tragic story of Aaron Swartz.   
I don't want to get too preachy about what Aaron Swartz was all about, I will leave that to you to figure out on your own. What I will say, however, is that Aaron Swartz represented the Millennial’s best chance of making Dan Brown and his “deep dive” type of archive research obsolete.

"Look at me, I'm researching"
Photo courtesy of The return of the modern philosopher

For those who are unaware, Aaron Swartz hung himself after he was arrested and about to be tried for breaking into a computer server located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz was allegedly downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. JSTOR is essentially a network of digitized academic journals and other highbrow research documents which are stockpiled behind a pay wall. So, to make a long story short, what Swartz was trying to do was to circumvent the JSTOR paywall being enforced by MIT. He attempted to do that by downloading the documents from the MIT server where the government-funded research was being parked, and then re-uploaded them on another server bank located elsewhere so that anyone using the internet could access the files for free.

Intellectual elites cling to knowledge and share it grudgingly with the American public despite receiving taxpayer funding for their pet projects.

Aaron Swartz
This man died for our collective internet sins
Photo courtesy of Flicker via Wikipedia Creative Commons

The reason why Dan Brown’s comment, “Google is not synonymous with research”, is still valid is precisely because most of the important statistical records and data are still currently being stored behind a pay wall or some other limited access point. In essence, Aaron Swartz was about to level the intellectual playing field between those elite few who possess the knowledge and only mete it out to the general public for a fee after it has become obsolete, and the unwashed masses who could stand to benefit from that knowledge in a timely fashion. A true democracy of knowledge.

It reminds me of advice once given by the legendary pimp Filmore Slim. Slim is widely regarded as one of the most studied pimps of all time and is rumored to be the inspiration for Snoop Dogg's persona. Slim was notorious for charging up and coming would be pimps for "consultation fees" regarding the pimp game. Slim's rationale is that if he could control the knowledge on his competitive San Francisco, California turf he could limit his competition in the streets. 

The good news is that Aaron Swartz death was not in vain. The U.S. Congress is now investigating a bill that would mandate the accelerated release of taxpayer-funded research to the public. The proposed bill is called the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR). The overall concept of FASTR is that research that has been funded by taxpayer money should not be restricted from taxpayers by a pay wall.

"The Game is to be sold...not to be told!"
Photo courtesy of  Flixist

Perhaps the biggest offenders are the private universities which recieve federal funding to conduct experiments in the form of  research grants. Those same institutions then take their research, publish it in a university journal, and then lock it away in JSTOR where only other universities or academics who pay JSTOR fees can access it.

FASTR will break down several paywall barriers and go a long way toward crowdsourcing academically collaborative projects around the globe.

In conclusion, hopefully one day intellectually sound, peer-reviewed and scientifically relevant information will be ubiquitous and free. Hopefully, the light of truth will eventually reveal all that is still shadowed by ignorance and deception. One day truth on the internet will become so commonplace that it will disprove Dan Brown's statement. We will know for certain that day has truly arrived when  a simple Google search offers the same benefit of traditional research.