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This is the Modem World: When we Google too much


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Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

Our cat Mischa is ill, and I am sad. But sadness is only one of the things I am feeling. Because of technology and the internet, I am angry, frustrated and a little bit freaked out.

Here's why.

One of the many great things about technology is that, like an all-knowing oracle, it provides answers to virtually anything. One has to wonder what religions a more primitive humanity would have erected around the mighty search engine. Type in any question and get an answer. Want to know why David Bowie lived in West Berlin in the '70s? You can get that answer in seconds. For those curious, Bowie lived with Iggy Pop in Germany while cleaning up his, shall we say, health.

All this information at our fingertips and voice prompts is, in total, a good thing, but there are times when knowing too much does us no good. Cyberchondria, for instance, is a somewhat recent phenomenon in which individuals convince themselves that they are coming down with some sort of horrible ailment as a result of over-searching symptoms. In my case, I've convinced myself at one point or another that I have diabetes, brain cancer, manic depression, hypertension and a raging case of sleep disorder.

According to my physician, I'm completely normal. But little does he know that I'm coming down with trichotillomania. I'll show him.

Access to all this knowledge produces some bizarre behavior in humans.

There are the know-it-alls who make our everyday lives miserable. These guys can be heard offering up factoids picked up from a message board here and a Wiki page there. He is often Googling answers during dinner conversations. He is always right, and he is convinced that the entire body of human knowledge is available a click and tap away.

"Benjamin Franklin gave guitar lessons. I read it online," he tells us.

By the way, people who own geese are called gozzards.

I don't know about you, but while I like knowing things, I certainly don't want to know everything.

There are also the smarmy "Let me Google that for you" types who, when asked a simple question that you figure falls within their expertise, tell you to go look it up yourself, as if engaging in conversation about something potentially interesting is exhausting and unnecessary.

Excuse us for asking, right?

And then there's the case of our cat. A few weeks ago, what started out as a respiratory infection turned into a weekend at the animal hospital, expensive CT scans, even more expensive camera probing and a trip back home with an invasive feeding tube attached to the poor girl.

Doctors are preparing my wife and me for the worst, and I am acting out the only way I know how: mad amounts of online searches, reading PDFs meant for medical students, digging through forum archives and then searching some more.

The net result is too much information, countless potential prognoses and exponential stress before the doctors even have a chance to study biopsies and tell us what's up. My head is playing out endless endgames, hypotheses and I'm second-guessing myself as I find new facts in fresh corners of the internet. It's not pleasant, nor is it relaxing.

My hopes rise as I read accounts from other cat owners who got their little friends through similar scenarios. Those same hopes are dashed moments later as other owners recount final days.

Yes, knowledge is power, and the internet is teeming with knowledge, but I find myself -- at least this week -- wishing for an internet-free world in which doctors have all the information and I am just the caregiver. In that world, I would patiently wait for information, hope for the best and react to what I am told at the time. There would be no choices; there would be little to no research. Maybe a trip to the library, but that would be that.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss, and in some cases, knowing too much can send us in circles.

That all said, I wouldn't have it any other way. I like knowing things, and my hunger for knowledge is more than half the reason I love the internet. I also love watching dash cam videos from Russia, but that's a story for another day.

Sometimes, though, I wish I didn't know what I know.

Just sometimes.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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