Is it a good thing or a bad thing that Google has created a mobile phone application that will solve any Sudoku puzzle? Google Goggles, as it's called, uses a phone's camera to take a snap of the puzzle. It sends the grid of boxes to Google's central servers, where the numbers are effortlessly filled in, and a picture of the result is sent back to the phone's owner.
Simple. And, obviously, marvellous for the puzzle aficionado. Or is it? When the news was splashed on the front page of a national newspaper last week, the article began: "The days of Sudoku could be numbered, thanks to Google..." The paper's puzzles editor shook his head and called it "a sad day" for puzzle fans, as if they would henceforth have no choice but to use the app rather than employ their own ingenuity and logic to solve Sudokus.
Not everyone despaired. Puzzle fans pointed out that many problem-solving websites already existed, and didn't affect the enjoyment of the diehard conundrophile. "Saying that computers spoil the pleasure of Sudoku-solving," wrote one blogger, Paul Stephens, "is like saying that helicopters spoil the pleasure of mountaineering."
The next day, Google was at it again. It announced another new app, Google Translate, using which means a mobile phone can translate a conversation – in any of 50 languages – while it's in progress. Barely minutes later, it announced that it had now added Latin to the syllabus of languages, and could provide instantaneous translation of chunks of text. But who on earth would benefit from such a refinement? Google cannily explained that it would enable web users "to read many of the crucially important philosophical and scientific texts originally written in this language."
Yeah, right, as the children used to say. The number of academic scholars looking up scientific treatises in Latin online will be a drop in the ocean compared with the thousands of bored schoolkids who will use the app to translate their homework in a matter of seconds. The new Google features are just two more examples of a modern phenomenon: computer-enabled cheating.
Pub quiz cheats have long benefited from the smartphone's capacity to tell you (under the table) which horse won the Derby in 1959 or which Marianne Faithfull song featured in the film Thelma & Louise. And there are any number of online cheat services for crossword fans with limited patience. But I'm concerned here about a more subtle and sneaking malaise. It's not like cheating at cards with a concealed ace, or sneaking a crib into an exam. It's a matter of cheating yourself, of going for an easy option that means you needn't strive, or do any work, or exert your brain, or search your memory, or go and see, or read and check, or ask a friend, or try just a bit harder to find the answer. It's about yielding to the weakness that's in us all, to find an answer to a question or a solution to a problem in the shortest possible time, and to delegate the struggle to a machine.
Of course Sudoku wranglers can complete a puzzle without looking for the solution online. But if they get stuck halfway through a real stormer of a puzzle, when they've been racking their brains for 20 minutes, you just know they'll reach for the easy way out. And they will miss out on what Yeats called "the fascination of what's difficult".
A version of the phenomenon could be found several years ago, among the fans of Nemo's Almanac, an annual literary competition that's been going for 120 years. The Almanac is a booklet of 12 pages, one for each month of the year, on each of which are six anonymous quotations. Contestants must identify from which novel, play, poem, autobiography, essay or letter collection the quotations come, to win a modest prize. They have a year to track them down. Long-term Nemaniacs (as they're known) will tell you how fiendishly difficult it is. You need a well-stocked memory, a comprehensive library, and access to many others. Three months into your researches (which involve consulting bookish friends, like a cop with a "missing persons" snapshot in their hand), you'll be tearing your hair out. Some players get in touch with each other and play swapsies – "I've tracked down 4 October and will swap it for anything you've found in April" – but few ever get full marks.
Google changed everything. Not only could you identify two-dozen quotations by pressing a button. In 1998, CD-ROMs containing the whole canon of English letters were suddenly available. Forget the months spent in libraries, the tantalisation, the slow-cooked satisfaction of finding out. "A year from now," the Almanac's then-editor, Alan Hollinghurst, glumly predicted, "half the Almanac will be solvable in 10 minutes." He urged contestants to adopt a policy of "circumspect inaction", something akin to urging a heroin addict to ignore the phial of methadone an arm's length away.
It may seem perverse to complain about labour-saving devices; but sometimes, the labour from which they save us is more a treat than a trial. I remember how, in university days, I'd stay up half the night with three or four friends, talking about politics or poetry, flexing our muscles of argumentation. All these discussions seemed to climax at around 5am with an argument over a single statistic, or date, or historical incident, or line of verse. We had no mobile phones, no access to computers, no search engines, no AQA to settle things. We found ourselves arguing more vehemently than ever – and, decades later, it's the texture of these impassioned discussions that I remember most fondly. If we could have verified the crucial detail, the discussion would have stopped and we'd have gone to bed. The detail would have long disappeared from my memory. And the conversation would have lacked its unique flavour.
Sometimes, not knowing the answer is a blessed state. Remember how crestfallen readers of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were, when the supercomputer Deep Thought, asked to find the "Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything", concluded (after seven and a half million years) that the answer was "42". (The Ultimate Question was, of course, "How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?" from Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind".) The Romantic poets, at least initially, rejected the explanations of science as crude and destructive. John Keats and Charles Lamb agreed, in 1817, that Isaac Newton had "destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism". For the post-Enlightenment Parnassians, ignorance really was bliss.
And ignorance is what computer-enabled cheating leaves us with. If a computer can supply the answer to your Latin homework, why should you ever bother to conjugate amare? If the Translate app can turn your conversation into French or Greek or Maori at the drop of a finger, why bother to learn a foreign language? If Google can fill in the empty boxes in your Sudoku puzzle, why waste more than five minutes on it? If your satnav can find you the way from Shepherd's Bush to Bethnal Green, why bother ever acquainting yourself with the topography of London or buying an A-Z and learning how to read a map? If your children cannot spell at 11 or 12, or use grammar properly, should you risk upsetting them by insisting they get it right? A friend who worried about her daughter's progress in Year 8 was surprised to find that the child's teacher routinely returned her homework without drawing attention to the fact that she'd spelt a dozen words incorrectly. "It's perfectly OK," the teacher said when they met. "I've shown Kate how to use Spellcheck."
"As for living," says the titular character in Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's decadent play Axel, "our servants will do that for us." In the 21st century, we're in danger of having technology do our living for us. Our brains used to be stuffed with knowledge, know-how, talents and experience; now, we delegate knowledge to machines which will find out everything for us and deal with it on our behalf. We cheat ourselves all the time. We dull our children's connection to the world of knowledge by letting them think a Wikipedia entry contains all the information they will ever need on a subject. On car trips, we make sure they never notice the journey, or the view through the window, by leaving them engrossed in computer games. We forsake the visual and tactile luxury of a hardback book to embrace the chilly, digital two-dimensionalism of an e-book, and have long abandoned the ample charms of the vinyl record – complete with gatefold, lyrics sheet and band portraits – for the disembodied, unisensory voice of the downloaded single. We seem to want just the words, thank you, and none of the paper pages. Just the songs, and none of the packaging. Just the sex and none of the foreplay. Retailers have spotted our appetite for the no-frills transaction. What's the likelihood that the future of shopping will be on the Argos model, with catalogues of merchandise, reference number, press-button ordering and no more of that time-wasting chitchat between shopper and salesperson?
This is not a Luddite position. I'm a big fan of technology. Nobody who began their journalism career whacking the keys of an old-fashioned Adler portable typewriter could fail to love the Mac and the mouse – not to mention email, the specialised website, the Amazon prices, the eBay browsers. I remember the joy of the Sony Walkman, of having a private hi-fi in your head as you walked from the train to the office; and later the bliss of an iPod, which shuffled a score of your favourite songs as you walked home. But I recognise that technological evolution is a process of constant – and constantly speeding-up – refinement, and that some refinements are cheating us of some of the joys of life, just as surely as supermarkets are getting rid of checkout staff and airlines are doing away with check-in staff. We must stop delegating everything to machines, and thinking that only machines have all the answers, or can understand the language, or will know the way.
Contemplating the Google Sudoku solver, one blogger dismissed it, saying: "It will stay the supreme champion of futility until someone develops software that lets you take pictures of girls and sends them off to Google to masturbate for you." An extreme view, perhaps – but a neat comment on how far we're letting technology intrude into our lives and tell us the solution to everything, while we stand around, in our dulled and supine way, no longer sure what the question was.