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Google and the death of knowledge

Don’t get me wrong, I love Google. As a writer of historical novels, it is the search engine that I have open on my PC as I work, ready to be dipped into to check a fact or study an image. It once provided me with a moment of pure serendipity. I needed to find some plants native to Barbados to add colour to a scene on a sugar plantation. Through Google I learnt of the Cannonball Tree, which fitted perfectly into a passage of dialogue that included some naval officers. The following day my wife and I took our daughters to visit Kew Gardens in London. In the main hot house, while waiting under a tree for the others, I glanced down to see the specimen’s name. Within twenty four hours of learning that Cannonball Tree’s existed, I was able to reach over and pat the trunk of one.

No, my issue with Google is the effect it can have on those that have grown up empowered by it. Almost any facet of knowledge is now available whenever and wherever it is needed through the smart phone in our pocket or the PC on our desks. It is, of course, a wonderful advance, but like all such advances it comes at a price. When information is so freely available, why take the time to learn? A generation is growing up with an a la carte knowledge of the world. Hold in your mind the minimum to get through life, (the next exam, the next job interview, the next meeting), because all else you may need is only a screen tap away. It parallels the debate about fake news, which can surely only exist in an environment where people put trust in an internet “fact” before their own innate wisdom.

But knowledge doesn’t work that way. If each fact is a pixel, it is the accumulation of them together that creates the picture. I write historical novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Google can supply the Cannon Ball trees, but it cannot give a ‘feel’ for the period. It is this that makes a historical novel more than just a modern thriller in costume. That comes from the writer’s periphery vision. For my period any number of influences might feed in, from costume dramas to the novels of Jane Austen, from the poems of Byron to the buildings of Bath, or the cartoons of Gilray and countless other tiny fragments that have lodged in the cultural subconscious, ready to help make that next passage feel “right”.

My fear is that the Historical Novel of the future will be studded with Google facts, but quite dead of this sort of historical feel? Will the next generation of Historical Novelists be able to deliver such work? And if they do, will there be a readership to appreciate the difference?

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