How jobs were different before searchable internet


BELIEVE it or not, the world existed before Google unlocked the key to everything we needed to know — and plenty more we didn’t.

As it has just turned 20, the internet’s biggest search engine, used for more than a trillion searches worldwide a year, has changed the world of its users — among them millions doing jobs where Google has become a vital tool.

But answers have not always been just a few taps away.

THE LAWYER

Alan Ringwood is a partner and specialist litigator at Bell Gully. He has been practising law 35 years.

Life before Google is hard to remember, but it definitely involved more field trips.

The world was not at your fingertips. The world was out there, in the actual world, and all the information you needed was stored in hard copy form.

This meant that there were trips to the university library, to check the definitions — in every single dictionary they held — for the word you needed to construe in a very particular way.

There were whole days spent in the Law Society library, while it rained outside, trying to find any kind of obscure authority for some arcane point of law that you knew must have been judicially considered somehow, somewhere, sometime.

There were trips to the public library to look at microfiche records of historical newspaper articles to do with something or other.

And — if that could be imagined — there were even more exciting trips.

There was one afternoon at a particular bar in Auckland which had more than 100 beers where the lawyer checked all the labels for any that contained a depiction of a lion, for a passing off dispute.

There were also trips to bottle stores across the city to check the labels on bottles of whisky for similar reasons.

These sorts of field trips are still sometimes necessary (or we can convince ourselves that they are) but pre-Google there was simply no alternative.

Then there was the waiting for information.

Ordering a book from another library, waiting a week, and hoping that it would be useful when it arrived. This all meant that the process of giving legal advice had a very different rhythm, and clients seemed naturally to understand that.

In particular, clients didn’t expect the advice the same day, or even necessarily that week.

So you not only had more time to research it, you also had more time to think about it, and you could put it aside to do something else in the meantime if you liked, and come back to it after reflection, and when it was done you posted it, and you might not get asked to clarify it for another week or two.

Life before Google was a lot less convenient. But it certainly was not all bad.

THE ACADEMIC

Professor Deborah Levy is head of the property department at University of Auckland’s business school.

Research before Google revolved around going to the library — it was very manual and time-intensive.

She would look up a journal article, take notes by hand or photocopy it (and if she didn’t read it fast enough the print would start to rub off).

Books played a much bigger role — and you had to look them up in the old wooden catalogue drawers with their index cards, as well as tracking back through the list of references or bibliography to other books and articles.

Floppy disks (remember those?) were used to transfer information between computers, with no such thing as email, flash drives or the Cloud.

But while Google and the digital age has made it easier to be an academic researcher, it has also made it more difficult.

Type in a few keywords and Google Scholar will instantly bring up 10 different articles, on different aspects of the topic and from different disciplines, so you get a much broader, up-to-the-moment overview.

But that can work against you — it means there’s nowhere to hide.

It’s now not unusual to submit an article to a journal and have a reviewer come back with an obscure article that they’ve Googled and that the article hasn’t covered, and then the researcher has to explain why it’s not relevant.

The internet has also changed the nature of the mental work.

Gone is that image of the academic sitting in the sun reading a book and pondering on it — now they have to scan it and get onto the next thing.

With a huge emphasis on keeping up, keeping across things, researchers now do a lot more skimming, having to quickly assess the quality and relevance of material.

THE JOURNALIST

Tony Potter has been a journalist since 1955. He worked on London’s Fleet St, then the Auckland Star and several other Auckland newspapers.

In the old days, when computers had now forgotten names like L.C. Smith and Underwood (and were much noisier), when newspapermen — it was mostly men — were expected to go out of the office and interview people called “contacts”, there were other avenues of information.

Newspapers had things called libraries, where no such newfangled nonsense as equal employment opportunities applied.

To be a librarian you had to be a woman. They were brilliant, they could find clippings about things you never knew existed.

But if it was a case of actually dragging down a bound volume of newspapers, usually collated in three-month collections, the “newspaperman” did it themselves.

Those things weighed a tonne and no self-respecting librarian was going to get it down.

Many reporters would spend hours in the library, although it’s possible they were trying to hide away from the chief reporter or news editor, or trying to chat up the newest recruit.

For further reference, there was the Auckland Central Library and the US Consulate’s library, where there were also telephone directories for each US state and the latest issues of Sports Illustrated and The New York Times.

Auckland University was brimming with information, freely supplied, often by professors with witty throw-away lines.

One chap by the name of Mr Williams could usually find an expert on Middle Eastern Affairs, sex habits of ex-US Presidents or differences between Lancashire and Yorkshire humour to call you back before deadline.

Finally, there was the contact book, beloved of “old fart” reporters, usually written in code so other ambitious up-and-comers couldn’t filch information, with a list of people who knew things.

Need an expert on the Beatles? Keith Quinn was your man (probably still is). The National Anthem? Get me Max Cryer.

There was even a cricket expert who claimed to know, in order, each scoring shot of Wally Hammond’s 336 at Eden Park in 1932 against New Zealand.

Don’t laugh — one day it might be needed. Although, it’s almost definitely on Google.

This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald and was published with permission.

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