But how intelligent are you? It’s a question that is often best left unasked.
Luckily, it turns out that feeling smart without necessarily being so is simple – all you need is an internet connection. Because, apparently, Googling things can make us feel more intelligent.
Knowledge has always been, partly, an illusion. Consider the popularity, a few years ago, of a book called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Its French author, Pierre Bayard, points out that culture is “a theatre charged with concealing individual ignorance”. That’s something most arts undergraduates work out pretty quickly. I’ll never forget, the night before an important seminar, finally settling down to read the text we were discussing the next morning – it was Moby-Dick. Yes, I did realise it was futile, and no, I don’t think the professor was fooled by Google research.
This also rings horribly true. I recently played Trivial Pursuit for the first time in many years. It was terrifying. But I won. It was luck, not intelligence. I had a run of literature questions (none of them concerning Moby-Dick, which I still have not completed) and then I fluked the correct answer to the final question because Seve Ballesteros was the only golfer whose name I could remember.
But luck or not, I felt intelligent. And without recourse to the internet. It’s a rare occurrence. I, like many, treat my smartphone as an extension of my brain. Can’t remember something? Google it. Want to know something that in the past you would have simply been content to ponder for a bit, then let go? Look it up. It gives us the illusion that we are learning, adding to the sum total of our knowledge, and, this, we are given to understand is a good thing. Even if the bulk of my Google inquiries are about celebrity plastic surgeries and variations on the theme of “who’s that guy off the telly I recognise and what has he been in before?”
I don’t know what the take-home lesson from all of this is – knowledge is an illusion, yes, and we must be wary of this fact. But it always has been thus – blaggers and generalists existed long before Google. And perhaps, with regard to the second study, the more we think we’re right, the smugger we become; the more secure in our own opinions. We’re only human, after all. I think this is OK. But I’m going to Google it anyway, just to be sure.