Dumb Terminals


The Internet, paired with great search abilities, has brought near-instant access to the world’s collective knowledge. Mix in smartphones attached at the hip as well as rising average bandwidth and it’s quicker still. This combination presents obvious benefits with global information access, but there is a subtle byproduct which seems to be occurring: we are outsourcing knowledge and understanding to the search bar.

Searching online is fast. Google even rubs it in on their results page, telling you that they found billions of results in less than a second. This astounding speed has reached the point where it can play a part in our quick thought processes—I can often get search results with answers faster than I can think of them. Even if I do know the answer, what’s a few seconds to double-check it on the web?

Search is obviously useful, but a problem arises when we forego our own intuition and our searches go from occasional and insightful to frequent and lazy. How many searches have you done today? Do you still remember what you learned from the results? What about yesterday’s searches? How many searches could you have done without, or predicted the answer you sought? Search is so frictionless that we become lax about the information we retain since we can always look it up in an instant.

In this way, we are like terminals: the conduits that only consume; the thin clients who outsource storage and performance to the almighty server, limited only by connection speed. When we rely on Google searches too frequently to provide us with our answers, we forget about the power of our own intuition, substitute in the Internet’s, and depend on it to be the source of truth, much like a client can connect to and assume the validity of more than one server. This can be a dangerous situation without critical thinking; issues are sure to come about when our questions also transition from the objective to the subjective and introspective (i.e. “what’s the matter with me”).

One might justify the lack of knowledge retention with Sean Connery’s line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “I wrote [it] down so I wouldn’t have to remember.” Why take up precious space in our brains for something that can be scribbled down somewhere (or Google-searched) for later perusal? even if it’s as important as a clue on how not to get decapitated in search of the Holy Grail? I would argue that Connery’s character is referring to information that will hopefully be required only on rare occasion and could be characterized as encyclopedic or nuanced in nature (how do you spell ‘Jehovah’ in Latin?). This kind of information might be something worth double-checking. The balance of objectivity, frequency-of-access, and difficulty-of-recollection applies to online information and how we should search too, not just guides to eternal life.

We don’t have to be these dumb terminals who put their own wisdom on the back burner. We have much more intellect and intuition than we give ourselves credit for. We may not have all the answers, but we can certainly think about them without immediately reaching for the keyboard. There is comfort in double-checking our answers, but in some cases this can be self-doubt in disguise. The aforementioned behavior is mainly the product of laziness fueled by an effortless user experience that lets us sink into heedlessness, but we don’t have to let it. Search is powerful, but with that power comes responsibility to not let our minds become slippery. Be mindful in your thought processes, properly digest information which you will need in the future, and spend less time doing things which shrink your attention span.