“The spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way.” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964
Technology has a knack for changing the way we think. Take the mechanical clock – it changed the way we saw time. Suddenly it wasn’t a continuous flow, but the exact ticking of seconds. The mechanical clock is an example of what Nicholas Carr refers to as “intellectual technologies”. They are the cause for dramatic shifts in thought, and there’s always a group that argues that we’ve lost a better way of life in return.
Consider Socrates. He hailed the spoken word as the only way for us to preserve our memory – in other words, to stay smart. Consequently, he wasn’t pleased with the invention of the written word. Socrates argued that we’d lose our ability to retain knowledge that way; that we would get dumber.
Flash-forward to today, and the internet is under the same kind of scrutiny. We tend to think that relying on other references rather than our own memory makes us dumber, but is there any way to prove that? Do we lose the ability to retain knowledge because we use the internet?
To address this, we’ll need a current understanding of how memory works in the first place.
A Web of Connections
Memory is constructed by different parts of the brain working together. Each element of memory – what you saw, smelled, touched, heard, understood, and how you felt – is encoded in a different part of your brain. Memory is like a web of all these interconnected parts.
Some memories are short term and others are long term. For memories to become long term, our brains connect them to past experiences. That’s how they are considered significant parts of our lives.
We have plenty of space to store our memories. We have one billion neurons. Each neuron forms 1000 connections. In total, they form one trillion connections. Each neuron also combines with others, so that each one helps with many memories at a time. This exponentially increases our storage space for memories to closer to 2.5 petabytes – or three million hours of recorded TV shows.
At the same time, we don’t know how to measure the size of a memory. Certain memories take up more space because of their details, while others free up space by being easily forgotten. It’s okay to forget, though. Our brains can keep up with new experiences that way, and we don’t have to remember everything by ourselves anyway.
We’ve been relying on others for knowledge ever since we decided to communicate as a species. In the past, we relied heavily on experts, family, and friends for information we sought, and we continue to do so. The internet just adds to that circle of references.
Scientists call this circle of references transactive memory. It’s a combination of you and your group’s memory stores. The internet is becoming the new transactive memory system. It may even replace our friends, family, and books as a resource.
We’re relying on the internet now more than ever and this is scaring some folks. What if we lose the ability to reflect on what we’ve learned because we’re using the internet as an external memory storage?
In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr warns, “When we start using the web as a supplement for personal memory, bypassing inner process of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.” What he means is that as we rely on the internet for our knowledge, we lose the need to process that knowledge into our long term memory. In a 2011 interview on The Agenda with Steven Paikin, Carr explains that “it encourages a more superficial way of thinking”, hinting to the fact that there are so many visual cues on our screens that we shift our attention from one thing to another very quickly. This kind of multitasking makes us lose the ability to distinguish between relevant and trivial information; all new information becomes relevant. Baroness Greenfield adds that digital technology may be “infantilizing the brain into the state of small children attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights.” It may be transforming us into shallow, inattentive thinkers.
What Carr encourages are attentive ways of thinking in a distraction-free environment “associated with the ability…to create the connections between information and experiences that give richness and depth to our thoughts.” He argues that we lose the ability to think critically about the knowledge we’ve gained when we don’t take time to internalize it. If our brain uses information stored in our long term memory to facilitate critical thinking, then using the internet as an external memory source means that we’re processing less short term memories into the long term.
Does that mean we’re really becoming dumber?
Dr Betsy Sparrow, main author of the “Google Effects on Memory” study, suggests, “When people expect information to remain continuously available…we are more likely to remember where to find it, than we are to remember the details of the item.” Though we forget about a piece of information we ‘Googled’, we know exactly where to retrieve it again. This isn’t a bad thing, she argues. We’ve been relying on experts for whatever we haven’t been experts in for millennia. The internet is merely acting as another expert.
In fact, the internet’s memory may be more reliable. When we recall something, our brain reconstructs the memory. The more we recall it, the less accurate that reconstruction becomes. As long as we learn to distinguish between reliable sources and drivel, the internet can safely become our primary point of reference, before our own memory.
What if we’re not plugged in, though? Dr Sparrow’s answer is that if we want the information badly enough, then of course we will turn to our other references: friends, colleagues, books, etc.
As for losing our ability to think critically, Clive Thompson, author of Smarter than you think: How technology’s changing our minds for the better, asserts that outsourcing trivia and task-based information to the internet frees up space for tasks that require a more human touch. Unlike Carr, he claims that we are liberated to think creatively because we don’t have to remember most things we look up on the web.
Knowing all of this, we can ask again: has our ability to retain knowledge really been reduced over the course of human history?
In the future, we will continue to have so much information at our fingertips, that it will be no longer useful to memorize it. That’s why school curriculums will teach ways to use the information instead, fostering critical thinking practices that way.
We will most likely become more distracted thinkers; our brain activity highly increases when we use the internet frequently. Whether or not this will affect our ability to think deeply and creatively on the knowledge we gain is a toss-up.
Our actual ability to retain knowledge will remain constant. Our brains will simply adapt to an environment where we will need to remember less details.
What future societies will consider paramount in this digital age is also a toss-up. Will we value quiet time to develop a personal outlook on the world based on our experiences and the quest for knowledge, or will we take a less philosophical approach to life? Whatever we choose, the internet will be there to guide our thoughts and actions, and we will continue to debate it’s influence in our lives. Unless, of course, it’s influence gradually rids us of the ability to debate at all.