It is what you know

“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.

14 thoughts on “It is what you know

  1. Isaac Garcia

    In his book “The Black Swan,” Nassim Taleb refers to the “unknown unknowns” as being more impactful on our existence than the “known unknowns.”

    I would categorize a digitized library of acquired information (Google) as a finite set of “known knowns.” This would appear to be a limiting definition of knowledge – in spite of the Google’s vast and growing index of information.

    In typical Taleb form, though, he also presents a juxtoposition that “…having a library of unread books (unknown knowledge) is more valuable and important than having a library of read books (known knowledge).” (I’m paraphrasing)

  2. Phil Gilbert


    Nice piece. Somewhere in here is, also, Borges’ library; where every possible article, essay, book that could be assembled has been assembled, so “writing” a book (or poem) is actually a simple matter of “discovering” it. Of course, discovering is not the act of writing; any more than “finding” equates to “knowing.”

    Google has effectively brainwashed itself and its employees that search results are equivalent to information (or, worse yet: knowledge). But for the rest of us it is simply a portal we use to search for and retrieve data.

  3. Ivo Quartiroli

    Just surrender… outsource your mind to Google. They will take care… download your mind to the cloud. Your mind will desappear, but your soul will become spiritually enlightened and your avatar will roam freely and happy in the Google realm.

  4. Mork


    I take offense at your claim that Google brainwashes its employees — believe it or not, it is possible to work there without worshipping your VPs and their world views, just as in any other large IT company.

    Had you said “users” instead of “employees” your comment would be closer to the mark, though my objection would be the same.

    If Google employees were the only people to conflate information with knowledge — “the rest of us” steadfastly knowing better –, we’d hardly have a reason to worry.

    (I apologize for straying from the original topic.)

  5. Paul Filkin

    To some extent I agree with Google on this. The real problem is that you need a certain amount of knowledge (or just common sense) in order to recognise which information is really correct. Today we can all be published authors and read by the world, whether we really know what we are talking about or not.

  6. Mork

    [Nick, if you read this, please delete my previous comment — sorry for the trouble. Also, your blog rocks.]


    Being a Google user doesn’t mean you have to subscribe to the company’s ideals; similarly, being a Google employee doesn’t mean you have to subscribe to your VP’s world view. (This holds for just about any large corporation out there.)

  7. Ivo Quartiroli


    In many spiritual traditions surrendering the mind is the way to reach states of the soul higher than our identification with the mind, beyond the mind. Every meditator knows that mind is not the ultimate state, however bright it might me.

    But Google lures in giving up our minds prematurely and with nothing in exchange. That means going below the mind, not beyond, which can be reached by the stillness of the mind and the inner understanding. Not an easy task when information pops from everywhere.

  8. Luis Alberola

    Thanks for pointing this out Nick. But the article of Maryssa Mayer is not THAT bad.

    Google is a utility that is helping the internet become more integrated with our individual minds / collective minds. Hopefully, other utilities will join in, with different algorythms, thus helping the internet learn new languages, new ways of linking information, of (yes) thinking.

    Google is not alone teaching the internet to think. But (and it is a strong but), Google is one of the main teachers right now. And this teacher says : it’s not what you know, it’s what you can find out.

    Only reassuring thought, I do not think this is a time for teachers, but a time for searchers (of meaning)

  9. Chris Weagel

    “But Google lures in giving up our minds prematurely and with nothing in exchange. That means going below the mind, not beyond, which can be reached by the stillness of the mind and the inner understanding. Not an easy task when information pops from everywhere.”

    That’s my central problem with the internet I use so much. Endless novelty and distraction lessens the amount of learning/work I accomplish. Today I escape into magazines, books and writing with a pen in a notebook. I store and display my work online but I don’t really create it there.

  10. Neil Taggart


    Her mind has “evolved” (I actually think that’s a neutral term, whereas you interpret it as a positive statement) to wonder why the heck that query she entered returned no results. She’s a Googler with a stated vision to “organise the world’s information”, so of course drawing a blank is an insult to her profession.

    I actually think the opening quote is a benign one: it’s simply a variation on the original “it’s not what you know, it’s how you use it”.

    I’ll also refute your comment “For Google ‘what cannot quite be signified’ does not exist”. I don’t think she’s saying it doesn’t exist, merely that they haven’t got to it yet – there’s a lot more evolution in search to go before such subtleties can be addressed.

  11. Bertil Hatt

    Surprisingly enough, I live the same effect, but not from Google but Spotlight, Mac OS X’s internal search tool. It’s very powerful and much faster then Google: it literally can read your mind from one key stroke to, in my case five, and I casually search years of Delicious tagging, thousands of academic papers, confidential reports, etc. I don’t thing that the collective aspect of it, or the unread, is nearly as important as the convenience. I mostly thing that there are still tons of things to be done in the way we see the results: I hate mind-mapping and I love two-axis plots and clever icons—and I can’t help but thinking that we can do much better to turn those few keystrokes into something more surreal, introspective.

  12. Robert Shaver

    You can’t find knowledge on the Internet.

    There is often confusion between data, information and knowledge. Data are the raw datums that, when combined systematically become information. But knowledge is only achieved by the human intellect when the data is studied, absorbed and understood to the point where correct inferences can be made as a result.

    So if Google’s Marissa Mayer said what you say she said then I think she is incorrect. But so what?

    You report that she says, “all of the information simply isn’t there yet”. Well, ALL the information isn’t anywhere yet, is it.

    But your spin is that “she is confessing to undergoing an intellectual dehumanization”. I think she’s confessing to being lazy which is a very human trait indeed.

    You go on to say, “it’s what you know”. If you ask a savant to multiply to huge numbers together and he gives you the right answer … he knows the right answer … but is that the “know” you value? What do you know for sure?

    My conclusion is that you have an ax to grind and I think you’re just looking for evidence that supports your theory … whatever that might be.

    Good luck with that.

    I’d rather hear what you like about Google or anything. What’s the good news? Or does that not sell newspapers?

    Peace, Love, Laughter,


  13. Famos

    I like and agree with the author’s article.

    Knowledge, if you like metaphors, is not out there in the cold universe, waiting in a freezer chest. It’s right here on Earth, being concocted every moment in a frying pan, constantly being seasoned with human thoughts & idea’s. A work in process. There would be no knowledge without this human process.

    I agree, Google in static – knowledge is dynamic! Google is another factor in an equation to find an answer.

    Famos, for the last word.

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