Google-knowing vs. Understanding

… a concept in Education

Data-Knowledge-WisdomConcept Description

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (reference below), Michael Patrick Lynch reflects on teaching in the time of Google and the distinction between what he calls “Google-knowing” and understanding.

Knowledge in the time of Google

Lynch writes:

“Much of what we know now we know via what we might call “Google-knowing” – by which I mean getting information not just via search engine but all manner of digital interfaces, such as the apps on our smartphones. There was a time when some snarled at the thought that “Google-knowing” was real knowing at all. (Remember when Wikipedia was controversial?) But that battle is thankfully over – nor was it necessary in the first place. According to one pretty standard definition of knowledge that goes back to Plato, Google-knowing obviously fits the bill. To know in this minimal sense is to have accurate and warranted information from a reliable source. If we are looking for a restaurant, and the directions we get online turn out to be accurate and from a reliable source, then we “know.”

Lynch notes that in the Internet age knowledge is highly outsourced, which underlines the need for critical thinking:

“In a world where the sharing of information has never been easier, it is not enough to luck into information from good sources; we need to know how to tell which sources are reliable, how to recognize evidence, and how to employ that evidence when challenged. But while critical thinking is important, it isn’t the end of higher education itself. It is a means to that end, which is a different kind of knowledge – what philosophers have sometimes called understanding.

Understanding and creativity

Lynch writes:

“To gain understanding is to comprehend hidden relationships among different pieces of information. These relationships can, of course, come in different forms depending on what it is we are trying to understand. In the case of history and science, the relationships are causal; in the case of literature, symbolic and emotional; in philosophy and mathematics, logical.

“In one really obvious sense, information technology is helping us understand more than ever before. Google-knowing is a terrific basis for understanding. You can’t connect the dots if you don’t have the dots in the first place. Yet Google-knowing, while a basis for understanding, is not the same as understanding, because it is not a creative act.

“Understanding is different from other forms of knowledge because it is not directly conveyed by testimony. It is something you must attain yourself, not something you can outsource. The creativity involved in understanding helps explain our intuitive sense that it is a cognitive act of supreme value, not just for where it gets us but in itself. Creativity matters to human beings. Sure, that’s partly because the creative problem-solver is more apt to survive, or at least to get what she wants. But we also value creativity as an end. It is something we care about for its own sake; being creative is an expression of some of the deepest parts of our humanity.”

Lynch ends his article with a call to action for higher education institutions:

“If we want our institutions of higher education to continue to be engines of understanding, we’d better make sure they are fine-tuned to deliver. We’d better make sure, in short, that they don’t drift into becoming expensive mechanisms for passing on Google-knowledge.”


Michael Patrick Lynch (2016), Teaching in the Time of Google, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 April 2016, at, accessed 26 April 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark 26 April 2016.

Image: Israel del Rio, Data, Taxonomies, and the Road to Wisdom (revisited),, accessed 26 April 2016.