Bruce Sterling on the shallow erudition of Google

Paul Raven @ 19-10-2010

I’d be remiss in my relentless Bruce Sterling fanboyism if I didn’t link to this interview with the man himself at 40kbooks (which looks to be a digital-only publisher focussing on essays  about digital culture and short-form fiction from notable authors; the Chairman’s recent Interzone-published story “Black Swan” is available from them, for instance).

And I’d also be remiss in my blognautic self-aggrandisement if I didn’t point out that interviewer Rhys Hughes riffs off of an answer Sterling gave in my interview with him back in 2009

Rhys: I believe that you were once asked to state the major difference between the methods of research you employ as a writer now and the methods you employed when you began your writing career. You responded with the single word, “Google.” This might seem a perverse question, but do you think there are any perils for a new writer in the fact that research has now become so much easier?

Bruce: That’s not a perverse question.  It’s obvious.  It’s a simple matter to examine almost any contemporary text and see that Google was used to compose it. Contemporary writing is loaded with strange little details of erudition that used to be expensive and difficult to research. For instance, let’s consider an obscure, dusty figure like, say, Massimo d’Azeglio.  Or rather, Massimo Taparelli, Marquis d’Azeglio (October 24, 1798 – January 15, 1866), the author of the Italian historical novels, “Niccolò dei Lapi” and “Ettore Fieramosca.”  No American should properly know anything about this man. It took me 57 seconds to research that on Google, and that included cutting and pasting the text here.

The peril comes in thinking, as a modern writer, that you can truly understand something about Massimo Taparelli in just 57 seconds. No, you can’t. To access facts is not to understand them. The Marquis d’Azeglio was an intelligent, creative and cultivated 19th century aristocrat. He was deep and broad and subtle and human, and very alien to us moderns. Modern writers may fail to understand him in this sudden electronic blizzard of  bland facts about him.  We may  know less of him because we seem to know  more of him.

Lots more good stuff in Hughes’ interview, so go read.

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One Response to “Bruce Sterling on the shallow erudition of Google”

  1. Chad says:

    As a professional researcher, I do believe Bruce has a point…a very small point. Just because in 1990 it would have taken you 2-5 hours to get to the nearest well stocked library, look up the books on or written by Massimo Taparelli, and acquire the same information it took you 57 seconds to acquire using Google does not make the information in 1990 any better at giving you an understanding of Taparelli.

    In fact, in 1990, if you could get away with it you wouldn’t even have bothered to look up Taparelli (assuming Taparelli was being researched in a larger project/topic). Now you probably have a better understanding of a large complex topic because it is quick and easy to look down a lot of the research side roads you would have ignored before the internet.

    This is not the issue with internet search. The issue comes when people are unable to determine what is reliable information and what isn’t during an internet search. In all likelyhood, given Taparelli’s obscurity and semi-irrelevant historical position, any information you find on him will be valid. However, the exact opposite would be the case if you were searching for the causes of the recent economic collapse.

    My main point being I’m not too concerned with the point Bruce brings up, as there are much more worrisome aspects to internet research.