3 Minute Thesis: “So what’s your PhD on then?”

I recently took part in a 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition at the University of Exeter. The competition asked PhD candidates from all areas of the university to present their thesis in under three minutes, quite a tricky feat!

The end result was an engaging day of insights into research far and wide. The process was an excellent opportunity to refine and focus the answer you give to the casual question people ask at the pub, family meet-ups and any other unprepared moments: “So what’s your PhD on then?”




How is Google changing the way we think and remember?


Abstract:

My research asks: what effect is Google having on our lives, our minds, and our thoughts? Google’s mission statement is, and always has been: "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Not just the web, but all the world’s information. Part of my research shows how this kind of aim is not new for humans. Societies and individuals have been trying to organise information and ideas for thousands of years. We’ve used all sorts of techniques and technologies from the earliest bead and string tools to today’s advances in quantum computing. But at the same time, our increased reliance on Google presents us with a very new set of issues that concern how we think, remember, and communicate. Is, as some commentators have argued, Google making us stupid? Or are our memories the best they’ve ever been? Does Google’s international influence help spread ideas across borders or reinforce our own beliefs. My research asks these questions within a wide historical context and draws on a range of disciplines in order to outline the specifics of Google’s influence on our lives. 

Three minute long talk:


We’re using Google at lot these days. To be more precise we use Google 3 billion times a day. Google is the dominant way of accessing the web in almost every country in the world, and even in the places which are the exceptions, China for instance, have technologies which replicate Google’s model. In an increasingly digital world we are becoming more and more reliant on Google to answer all our questions 

Is Google making us stupid? The simplicity of such a question is appealing, particularly when we are addressing such a relatively young phenomenon. However, I think this is a very unhelpful kind of question to be asking.

My thesis consists of putting Google into a different kind of context, as a smaller part of a much larger historical narrative. In essence my thesis is a way of avoiding the question “Is Google making us stupid?”

We’re using Google at lot these days. To be more precise, collectively we search using Google 3 billion times a day. Google is the dominant way of accessing the web in almost every country in the world.

In an increasingly digital world we are becoming more and more reliant on Google to answer all our questions, from, what’s the best way to poach an egg to what’s going on in the Middle East?

And hence the fear. This universal uptake is bound to change the way we think.

Recent psychology experiments have shown that we are becoming more proficient at remembering how to get to certain information, rather than the information itself which has been dubbed the ‘Google effect’.

We’re training our minds, both neurally and socially, to think in terms of associations and pathways rather than discrete blocks of knowledge. 

Asking black and white questions such as “Is Google making us stupid?” presents the idea that there is only one way of thinking and, that involvement with technology can only be considered artificial or damaging.

We commonly think of technologies as external to what we really are, like add-ons or extensions, but in reality the very conception of the human mind has always been constructed through technology.

From the written word to the printing press to the present, we’ve used different sets of technologies to help us to express a whole range of different modes of thinking.

But this isn’t to say we shouldn’t be wary of Google, particularly given its rapid and widespread adoption.

However, rather than making claims for and against, my thesis asks that we should think more widely about what new kinds of thinking will be positive and articulate what it is exactly we are afraid of.

In essence, asking what kind of thinking do we want to see in the future?


Richard Graham

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