I’m one of the lucky ones: I’m very close to my Mum. Emotionally close, though we’re also about the same (diminutive) height, share a deep love of militant organisation, and similarly gravitate towards the sun like human sunflowers. Over the past few years, however, I’ve felt the strength of our connection weaken, and not just because we’ve rarely been in the same country since I left home eight years ago. There was a deeper reason at play – one that had remained elusive until only recently: she’s no longer my first port of call for advice.
I appreciate this is part of the natural shift in familial tectonic plates as children become independent adults themselves, but I hypothesise we’re seeing this separation accelerate in our 21st century. With unprecedented access to a seemingly endless stream of resources, we now find ourselves in a position where we may be influenced by those far beyond our immediate circle of family and friends. A circumstance that wasn’t nearly as true only 50 years ago.
Personally, I’ve noticed I now tend to pick the brain of an expert in a particular field – something social media has made extraordinarily available – or jump over to Google Scholar to find my answer in a thesis that’s consumed the life of a highly intelligent individual for the past two years.
I’m not alone. According to Internet Live Stats (2019), Google processes 3.5 billion searches per day. That’s 1.2 trillion searches worldwide each year via Google alone.
Young adults especially are increasingly looking to the internet and social networks for advice and information. This is in stark contrast to the sources my Grandma recounted turning to when she needed guidance. In our delightful, insightful, 17 minute call, her first response – immediate and unprompted – was, “I’d ask Mum”. She added she’d occasionally make use of her older brother or mentors at work for more specific queries, but for the most part, “I’d always ask Mum”. And these days, she’d “Almost never” resort to a search engine for help. True, this is only a sample of one, but you’d have thought I’d asked whether she’d seek counsel from an amoeba.
While the type A person I am adores the efficiency and accuracy this high-quality information offers (provided one turns to reputable sources, which is admittedly becoming more and more challenging), I wonder what we lose as a result.
The main difference seems to be the wider context of our seeking and discovery.
For example, I spent many a night curled up in bed next to Mum trying to assimilate and navigate the waves of bullying at school. Sure, had Carol Dweck’s TED Talk been around at the time, we could have covered in 10 minutes what we ultimately did in years, but those nights are nights I’ll never forget. Ditto our makeshift strategies.
Or the afternoon that began with a question from biology homework and ended with us both on the verge of physical implosion. The two exasperated hours in which she so arduously strove to inculcate my not-comprehending brain with the concept of osmosis (the movement of a solvent through a semipermeable membrane into a solution of higher solute concentration, for those wondering) is a moment we still fall about laughing today. Yes, she could have redirected me to a Khan Academy tutorial and saved us both near heart failure, but the fact that I can still recite that damned definition 12 years later is telling.
On the other hand, the quick but comparatively lifeless experiences I have asking dear Google for answers don’t have the same stickiness. I’m sure we can all call to mind a time when a question was raised amongst friends, and – no one knowing the answer – was swiftly solved by our trusty smartphone. These days we don’t even need to click through to an actual web page – search engines show us all we “need to know” in their astute knowledge panels above the results returned. But can you still recall any of these answers or why the questions arose in the first place? Nope, neither can I.
There’s a lot of hate for the “instant-gratification” world we’ve come to live in today, and I’m not necessarily here to add fuel to the fire. We’d be naive to say these exponential advances in technology have only done us harm. But I do wonder if there is a lesser-acknowledged side-effect of our ability to impassively “Ask Alexa” or “Hey Siri” our way through life.
I’ve decided I’d like to take a step back and return to some of these conversations. Because – life-threatening scenarios aside – which truly matters more: being “right”, or being in communion? My relationship with the omniscient Google, or with my one-of-a-kind Mum?
Ultimately, despite my formidable type A nature, the answer is clear: I’d prefer to sacrifice a little “correction” for the irreplaceable gift of human connection.
Tahlia Norrish is an Aussie actor, writer, and founder of The Actor’s Dojo. Underpinning all her work is a quest to explore the mindsets and strategies that enable us to realise our highest potential.