“It’s not what you know,” writes Google’s Marissa Mayer, “it’s what you can find out.” That’s as succinct a statement of Google’s intellectual ethic as I’ve come across. Forget “I think, therefore I am.” It’s now “I search, therefore I am.” It’s better to have access to knowledge than to have knowledge. “The Internet empowers,” writes Mayer, with a clumsiness of expression that bespeaks formulaic thought, “better decision-making and a more efficient use of time.”
The late Richard Poirier subtitled his dazzling critical exploration of Robert Frost’s poetry “the work of knowing.” At his best, wrote Poirier, Frost sought “to promote in writing and in reading an inquisitiveness about what cannot quite be signified. He leads us toward a kind of knowing that belongs to dream and reverie on the far side of the labor of mind or of body.” For Google “what cannot quite be signified” does not exist. In place of inquisitiveness we have acquisitiveness: information as commodity, thought as transaction.
“The Internet,” writes Mayer, “can facilitate an incredible persistence and availability of information, but given the Internet’s adolescence, all of the information simply isn’t there yet. I find that in some ways my mind has evolved to this new way of thinking, relying on the information’s existence and availability, so much so that it’s almost impossible to conclude that the information isn’t findable because it just isn’t online.” When Mayer says her “mind has evolved” to the point that it can only recognize and process information that has been digitized and uploaded, she is confessing to undergoing an intellectual dehumanization. She is confessing to being computerized.
[Frost] insists on our acknowledging in each and every poem, however slight, that poetry is a “made” thing. So, too, is truth. Thus, the quality which allows the poetry to seem familiar and recognizable as such, that makes it “beautiful,” is derivative of a larger conviction he shares with the William James of Pragmatism. “Truth,” James insisted, “is not a stagnant property … Truth is made, just as health, wealth and strength are made, in the course of experience.”
It’s not what you can find out, Frost and James and Poirier told us; it’s what you know. Truth is self-created through labor, through the hard, inefficient, unscripted work of the mind, through the indirection of dream and reverie. What matters is what cannot be rendered as code. Google can give you everything but meaning.