July 29, 2013, 11:53 a.m.

The problem with google

Take note that I wrote the word "google" with a lowercase "g" - thereby referring to the word in its verb form. Roughly defined as:

To search for information on the internet.

The ability to find information on any topic humanity has ever written about within seconds has transformed our way of life. I personally believe the last 15 years of real time access to information via the internet has had as big, if not bigger, impact on our society as did the industrial revolution or even the invention of the wheel. But before I start digressing, the google effect is a double edged sword.

Having access to information, and truly understanding that information are two different things. If that was not true, then we would not have use for schools, universities or other educational institutions. There would be no baccalaureus, no magister scientiae - everyone would be doctors. Does that mean a person has to be taught by others and cannot be self educated? Absolutely not. However, just like normal teaching, learning something takes time and experience. Time since most fields today are so specialised that one cannot hope to review a significant amount of literature on any subject if you do not devote a substantial amount of time to it. And experience simply because being an armchair expert means nothing if you have not practised what you have learnt.

So where is the problem with google? In the old days when I was running around bare feet thinking fun was to see how many hit points I could get by blowing self made darts into my brothers' body, if I wanted to know more about something I had one of three, and only three choices. I could:

  1. Go to school / university and get taught
  2. Be taught by an expert in the field
  3. Go to the library and try and locate some good books on the subject matter. Encyclopedias were a good start.

Each one of those methods took lots of time and dedication. It was a conscious effort to go visit your library or to enrol in some new course. It took discipline and motivation. Usually what happened is that for those things you deemed worthy of the effort, you ended up understanding the subject matter quite deeply simply because of the devotion in time and effort you had to make.

Today the world is different - for better or worse. I am not an art or photography major. Say I wanted to get a photographer for my wedding day. I interview a couple to try and find the one I have the most synergy with. So there is Leila from Leila Photography - sitting across from me showcasing her work. I ask her what kind of equipment she uses, as I want to make an informed decision. She tells me she uses a Canon 21MP 1Ds Mark III with a 24 - 70 F2.8 L lens, and a 85mm F1.8 and 50 F1.2 L for indoor shots. I nod my head in agreement even though I have no idea what she just told me.

She leaves and I walk over to my laptop, firing up Chrome and opening up Google. Here are some results I get from searching about current trends in wedding photography.

  1. iPhone Wedding
  2. Another one
  3. Seven Myths

So now I start to think that big DSLRs are something of the past - it seems like the modern trend is to go for a photojournalistic approach using a small discrete camera such as an iPhone or other point and shoot compact. With the rise in popularity of Instagram it just makes sense that this Leila has not kept up with modern times. So on our follow up meeting I gently explain things to her:

Leila, I have done some research of my own and the use of DSLRs are antiquated. They are big and bulky and interfere with the spontaneity of the day. Surely you should know that using a mirror-less camera or even a phone camera will provide you with much more flexibility and make you seem much less imposing to the guests. Today's mirror-less cameras and phone cameras easily meet the quality of DSLR cameras for something like a wedding. We are not printing billboard sized images. So I am sorry to say but you are not the right person for us. Bye!

What is the problem here? I have no background in photography. I have no experience, not even theoretical. But I can read and I am not stupid. So by spending an hour online and researching the topic, I suddenly became a self taught expert. I know things... I know enough to challenge Leila, who has been in the business for more than 15 years now. My 1 hour research endeavour has enabled me to outsmart a working professional with 15 years of experience. Or did it?

Here are some things to ponder:

  1. What did I really learn during the 1 hour of researching?
    1. I know that two couples have had their weddings photographed with cell phone cameras and they seemed to have come out really well.
    2. I know that some random person posted a blog entry disputing 7 areas where mirror-less cameras meet or exceed DSLRs.
  2. What does Leila know during her 15 years as wedding photographer?
    1. She has photographed more than a thousand weddings. She knows how well the equipment she is using works for the challenges a wedding presents.
    2. She has not gone out of business during the past 15 years - so surely she must be doing something right.

The root problems are accuracy, context and experience. Accuracy simply due to the fact that you cannot always believe what you read on the internet. Old school encyclopaedias were meticulously peer reviewed before being released. Does not mean they are perfect, but there are a certain level of scrutiny not found online. Also, the source of the information was not always verified - who is the person who wrote the 7 myth article?

Context is most probably the biggest issue. Reading articles here and there is like quoting exerts from the Bible. I can find many quotes that, taken out of context, mean something very different than what was intended. In this context the problem is that without understanding the fundamentals of DSLR cameras as well as mirror-less and phone cameras, as well as their history one is not in a position to make an informed decision as to what to believe. So you are left to the mercy of whatever propaganda is being fed to you via your search results.

Lastly, experience makes the difference between having first hand experience and knowing whether something said has substance or is just smoke and mirrors. It is closely tied to context, but goes beyond that. It is much more intimate. A better example for this is relationships. Only once you have been through a bad breakup do you understand what being heart broken really means. Before that you can only sympathise. So if somebody speaks about cures for being heart broken, without having had your own heart broken you have no experience to be able to judge any advise on. Once again you have to trust your source, which in the case of the internet, is no one and everyone.

This problem is also very prominent in information technology. Some professional consultants have 18 plus years of working experience. This experience consists of day to day interaction with technology from before the time when google became a verb, before email became a household feature. Spending 10 hours or more each day understanding bits, latches, stacks, queues, red-black trees, inheritance, interrupts, partitioning, sharding, concurrency, etc. They learn from experience - see what works and what does not. They learn from books, peers, they get university degrees via formal study, they build real world systems and grow during each iteration. To survive as consultants they have to keep abreast of most new technologies. That means evaluating them, trying to use them and assess their place in the technology marsh.

I have seen first hand how clients become self-googled experts in under an hour, challenging your professional recommendations. They want to contract you for a job (which they acknowledge they cannot do themselves - they need your "expertise"), yet they challenge your recommendations based on information gleaned from the internet. Now do not get me wrong - I have no problem in clients asking productive questions and even going as far as questioning your recommendations. There most definitely are quacks out there, and even top pro's can make mistakes. That being said, the client should always remember that they did not spend half their lives in the industry. Therefore any self-googled knowledge should be placed in to the right context - which in the case of the client would usually be a very empty place. Just like I am not going to tell them how to run their business as that would be my equivalent void context. The clients have their skills, we have ours.

Here is a good example. An IT consultant recommends using C++ for implementing a stock exchange algorithm. The client googles and finds this. There are three languages more popular than C++. And considering PHP's growth that looks to be the new kid on the block. Even Java seems faster than C++. And looking at what the Big Boys are using, it is clear that C++ does not even feature. So the client confronts the consultant about the use of C++, stating that if Java is good enough for Flickr, it should be good enough for them.

Lets look at the various issues in the client's reasoning:

  1. Accuracy - the reports listed have not been independently verified.
  2. Context - the languages proposed by the client are for implementing a different kind of system - a web based application, not a stock exchange algorithm. These applications have vastly different requirements as to performance. Web applications can tolerate up to about 8 seconds of latency and still be acceptable to end users, however stock exchange algorithms need to be as fast as possible - even the limited speed of light affects trading.
  3. Experience - the counter proposal made by the client (Java in my example) is based on hearsay. Has the client actually built a stock trading algorithm in Java and proved that it is better in most respects than C++? No.

A better approach for the client to have taken would be to do their research (if they feel like questioning things), and then stating it like this:

I have done some research of my own and it seems that Java is much more popular than C++. It is even used in large settings such as Flickr. Why do you recommend C++ and not Java?

Consultant's response:

That is only true depending on how you define popular. Remember, I need to implement an algorithm where millisecond delays can cost you millions. Every ounce of performance is important. For this application C++ has been proven to be better suitable than Java as it is faster.

To conclude, I think the invention of the internet and the ability to interrogate all of human knowledge in real time is one of the greatest inventions of all time. However people should use it wisely and understand that you cannot become a self proclaimed expert just because you have spent a couple of hours googling. That only comes with time, effort and experience. If you still do not believe me (this article is indeed found and read online - hence it recursively suffers from the very problem stated herein), let me do a small biopsy through a burr hole in your skull. I have googled it.