What City-Making Can Teach Google About The Way Our Brains Work

I live in a city that has been almost entirely destroyed by earthquakes. I’m not being hyperbolic, either: over 70% of the footprint of central Christchurch either collapsed in the 2011 shakes, or has been or needs to be demolished as a result of quake damage.

As a result, pretty much the entire city (population roughly 400,000) has become active in conversations they might never otherwise have contemplated, questions like: What should our transportation system look like? How do we make our streets friendlier to pedestrians? What kind of tradeoffs are we prepared to make between the cost of building and the cost of poor quality?

Personally, I’ve become deeply interested in the work of urbanists like Jane Jacobs, Peter Calthorpe, and Brent Toderian. And one of the things these and others like them understand profoundly is that it is the volume and quality of the human interactions that distinguish successful cities from unsuccessful ones.

In a city full of life, you might head down to your local coffee shop and bump into an old friend who happens to be visiting town, and who happens to be working in a field closely related to your current venture. You strike up a conversation in the supermarket that leads to a new opportunity. Your colleague comes back from a trip to the dry cleaners with three new sales leads.



This kind of luck isn’t entirely coincidental. Well, it is, but the chances of such a coincidence occurring are much higher in successful cities. It’s been well-documented that people who consider themselves lucky talk to strangers, thereby creating more opportunities for the unexpected. In his book ”The Luck Factor,” Richard Wiseman says creating chance opportunities is one of the four essential principles of luckiness. When the physical environment engenders more of these chance encounters, more lucky things happen.

And this is where Google should take note. Because, while the company’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, part of the usefulness of information is the chance encounters it makes with other bits of information in our brains.

When we learn new things, we don’t just learn those things. We increase our ability to pattern-match, to extrapolate more abstract principles, to create mental connections that can subsequently further knowledge for others. The act of learning has merit in and of itself.

Which is why, if you skip the whole “act of learning” main course and go straight to the information dessert, you risk losing much of the nutrition along the way.

Earlier this week, in a piece called “Google makes us all dumber: The neuroscience of search engines,” Salon writer Ian Leslie says, “Google is known as a search engine, yet there is barely any searching involved anymore. The gap between a question crystallizing in your mind and an answer appearing at the top of your screen is shrinking all the time. As a consequence, our ability to ask questions is atrophying.”

Leslie goes on to illustrate the importance of creating an environment conducive to chance connections, similar to the urban environment envisioned by Jacobs, Calthorpe and Toderian:

“A great question should launch a journey of exploration. Instant answers can leave us idling at base camp. When a question is given time to incubate, it can take us to places we hadn’t planned to visit. Left unanswered, it acts like a searchlight ranging across the landscape of different possibilities, the very consideration of which makes our thinking deeper and broader. Searching for an answer in a printed book is inefficient, and takes longer than in its digital counterpart. But while flicking through those pages your eye may alight on information that you didn’t even know you wanted to know.”

So here is my suggestion for Google. For one week, one month, one year, change your “I’m feeling lucky” button to a “Take me on a journey” one. And then don’t lead me directly to the answers. Lead me to an exploration. My brain will thank you for it.

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