The Google search engine opened on a computer monitor, photographed in 2012.
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By Lily Rothman
September 4, 2018

It might sound obvious to say that Google has changed the world in the 20 years since it was founded on Sept. 4, 1998. Google, and its parent company Alphabet, is involved in everything from the development of driverless cars to disputes with President Donald Trump.

But, to James W. Cortada, author of All the Facts: A History of Information in the United States since 1870, there are also lots of ways in which Google, as the dominant search engine, hasn’t really changed anything. In the scheme of the whole history of people searching for information, its has merely continued many trends that have been happening for centuries.

One of those trends, for example, is that it’s increasingly safe to assume that any information you want to search for — the original role of Google — is out there somewhere, probably written down.

“When you learn to be literate, you learn that there’s data and information that’s organized in a logical way in something called a book. And you learn more than just what you read; you learn how information is structured,” Cortada explains. “The more people are reading, the more they’re also writing, and therefore organizing ever larger bodies of information. After a while, certainly by the 18th century, people were assuming, ‘I don’t know what the book is on this topic but I bet you there is a book out there.'”

In the United States — the history of which roughly corresponds with this trend toward mass literacy — Congress recognized that trend and encouraged its spread. The government facilitated information access by allowing inexpensive postal delivery of newspapers in the nation’s early days, and later by publishing its own free information for citizens on matters such as home economics. Meanwhile, the technology that spread that information became cheaper and easier to get. More and more, the answers weren’t merely out there somewhere, but actually accessible nearby. Internet search and Google’s improvement of the technology, to Cortada, is just another step in that direction. The only difference here is frequency and quantity, Cortada says. The content of the information we’re searching for (health tips, recipes, news) is a continuation of a long trend, too.

“By the time Google comes along, the big news there is that it’s offering a different platform and format for getting the kinds of information that people have been looking up for 200 years,” he says.

That said, there is something new in the internet-search era — and it’s something that’s changing the whole way we interact with information.

“Today, it’s almost as if we went to the index of a book first rather than a table of contents,” he explains.

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Here’s how Cortada sees it: Imagine you want to know what year John F. Kennedy was elected President. If you had an encyclopedia, you would look at the entry for JFK and find out the answer (1960), but you’d also have to skim past JFK’s birth date and birth place, and probably lots more. If you had a smartphone and Google, on the other hand, you would specifically look up the year he was elected, and the year is right there at the top. The more we use services like Google, the more our brains organize the world in an index-based fashion. This also means people who make a living providing information are increasingly organizing their presentation to catch eyeballs looking for specific details in indexes.

As a result, the way we interact with information is largely more disjointed than it was for our ancestors.

“There’s nothing wrong with an index. I use it all the time, for the same reasons I use a Google search,” Cortada says. “But one of the problems we have — and I don’t blame Google for this, it’s just the nature of the Internet — is that a lot of the time people will have bits and pieces of data flotsam, or whatever you want to call it, little pieces floating around in the ocean. There’s no connection other than the connection you want to make.”

If you’re an expert on Kennedy, for instance, you bring all sorts of context to the 1960 answer. If you don’t know anything about him, the year doesn’t tell you much. And if the answer that pops up is wrong, you have no reason to question it. If it clashes with your prior but mistaken notion of the timeline, you might decide the answer is wrong even if it’s not. You got your answer in an efficient manner, but you’re relying on your own prior knowledge to digest it.

The fact that effective use of internet search requires knowing how to navigate the results of a computer algorithm isn’t new. In the past, for example, you might have brought to bear your knowledge of your neighbors’ levels of education before you decided whom you’d ask a tough question. Nor is the fact that preconceived notions affect how people process information. That’s true of everyone, as much for you as for the person who wrote the algorithm that delivers your answer online. But, the more we receive information in independent chunks, the more important it is to be aware of those factors.

“There’s a whole new literacy that we need if we’re going to live in an index-driven world,” Cortada says. “There’s a different type of literacy that we need and we haven’t articulated what the features are of that literacy.”

Artificial intelligence might help — one day, Cortada hopes, AI might be able to tell whether you already know all about Kennedy or not — but he thinks there’s also hope for human beings.

“Information is socially conditioned, as is its reception. How do we run an index-based system with that reality? I’m not sure we know the answer to that yet,” he says. “I’m 71 years old and I’ll let you in on a little secret: You can get smarter over time, and it’s not by piling more crap into your brain. It’s because you become more discerning and discriminating and know where to go to get information — and that information can be molded and shaped.”

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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