20 years of Google: When information was not just a click away
In India, getting basic information in the pre-Google setup meant spending days at the library, calling in favours to meet experts, use of dictionaries, directories and globes, reading books and enclyopedias and watching quizzes
When Udayan Mitra, publisher for literary books at Harper Collins first moved to New Delhi from Kolkata in 1996, he bought a 300-page book of the map of Delhi published by motorcycle manufacturer Eicher Motors. ““It was very detailed. You could look up intricate details like house numbers in Lajpat Nagar. There would be 10 pages dedicated to one locality,” recalls Mitra. He describes it as the equivalent of zooming in on Google’s navigation app, Google Maps. This analogy is symbolic of the shift from traditional ways Indians used to find answers in the 1980s and 1990s to Internet firm Google’s search engine taking over our lives since it was launched in India in 2004.
In India, getting basic information in the pre-Google setup meant spending days at the library, calling in favours to meet experts, use of dictionaries, directories and globes, reading books and enclyopedias, watching quizzes etc. “Quiz books used to be huge in India through the 90s. The trend was short lived and stopped working atleast for the big publishers by 2005,” says Mitra.
If you were a ’90s kid, chances are Sunday mornings would have included switching on Zee TV at 11am to see Derek O’Brien throwing general knowledge questions at school kids from different parts of the country. “I have not conducted a quiz show for more than a decade now, as I joined politics 15 years ago. Nevertheless, Google killed the sport of quizzing! In a way that is good, since quizzing often only means “recall” of knowledge,” says O’Brien. Soft skills like thinking, ideating, writing, speaking can’t be taught by Google and youngsters know that, he adds.
Libraries which were a necessity earlier have become a choice today. Bangalore-based Kavitha Rao, author of The Librarian, published last year, grew up in libraries, accompanied by her father, an avid reader. “But for my two children reading is associated with the Internet or the Kindle,” she says. Rao is not nostalgic about the fearfully difficult access to information in those times and the laborious process of cross referencing books and taking notes. “It used to be very difficult. I don’t think the Internet is a curse. But today libraries still need to be there alongside the Internet. A healthy mix is required,” she says.
Mitra agrees that access to information to millions has become much easier, but the information itself lacks depth. “The information on the Internet is not nuanced, it’s basic and not deep enough or layered enough to get a holistic understanding of any topic,” he adds.
Dictionaries and globes have become invisible. “Vocabularies are shrinking,” says Mitra. In 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica stopped production of its iconic multi-volume book sets to focus on digital encyclopedias. This was another trend that marked the shift and the impact of technology on everyday lives.
Siddhartha Basu, creator of the popular television show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), believes the world wide web and powerful web browsers have triggered a knowledge and information revolution which has few precedents in human history but needs to used with restraint. “But the slope has got slippery too. You have to know how to navigate these vast oceans of information, sift the grain from the chaff, information from misinformation, disinformation and propaganda,” he explains.