The Google Effect: New evidence of the Internet’s impact on brain and memory recalls Plato’s ancient warning
It’s not every day you get to note/observe/say something like this: A 2400-year-old warning from Plato has just been confirmed, or at least inadvertently recalled, by newly published research about the cognitive and neurological effects of our now-ubiquitous culture of Internet searching.
Here’s the lowdown:
Researchers at Columbia University. . . say Google and its search-engine brethren have started to reshape your brain, making you more likely to forget information that is only a quick Internet search away. The new research, published in Science magazine, suggests that people are adapting to the very existence of search engines. For most of us, the thinking goes, the “what” isn’t what matters now; it’s the “where,” as in where can you find the information.
In a series of experiments, researchers found that subjects “were significantly more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later,” as the New York Times puts it. When subjects were given information and folder names in which the info was stored in one test, they were more likely to recall the folder names than the information itself. The researchers, naturally, have coined a term for this development: the “Google effect.”
The Internet has become “an external memory source that we can access at any time,” Betsy Sparrow, the study’s principle researcher, explains on Columbia’s website.
— “Study Shows Internet Alters Memory,” Christina Gossmann, Slate, July 15, 2011
And here’s the Plato connection: In the Phaedrus, a dialogue written circa 370 B.C.E., Plato depicted his teacher Socrates telling the story of Thamus, a great Egyptian king who once entertained the god Theuth, inventor of mathematics, astronomy, and many other such things, including, most famously, writing. (Obviously, Theuth is probably Plato/Socrates’ variation on Thoth or Hermes.) Theuth showed Thamus many of his inventions, and Thamus praised them all. But Theuth was especially proud of his invention of writing, and he introduced it to Thamus by saying, “Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.”
In a needle-scratching response that clashes jaggedly with our modern-day cultural assumptions about the supreme intellectual value of writing and literacy, Thamus vigorously disagreed that writing was a good thing. The wording of his reply makes it sound like he was peering through a wormhole into the 21st century and reading the new Columbia University report:
You, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.
— Phaedrus, trans. Walter Hamilton
So what’s to make of this? For one thing, it’s instructive to consider the possible negative effects of the phenomenon in question. Nicole Ferraro, writing for Internet Evolution, offers these thoughts on the Columbia study’s findings:
To tell the truth, we’ve done this to ourselves: Why know directions when we can get turn-by-turn directions on our iPhones? Why remember someone’s email address when Gmail is going to produce it automatically when we begin typing letters? I mean, why remember any fact that can easily be pulled up on the search engines we carry in our pockets? And how are we expected to remember information when we’re consuming so much at once and jumping from task to task?
So, yes, this was bound to happen. But what are the implications of this? Would you agree with the headline on this Register article about the same study?: “Google turning us into forgetful morons.”
— “Redefining ‘Knowledge’ in the Age of Google,” Nicole Ferraro, Internet Evolution, July 15, 2011
But Ferraro’s concerns about forgotten directions and phone numbers and email addresses pale in comparison to the dire moral/intellectual/social prognosis that Thamus drew from his insight:
And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instructions, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.
The aforementioned Betsy Sparrow, head of the Columbia University research team, told The New York Times “her experiments had led her to conclude that the Internet has become our primary external storage system. ‘Human memory,’ she said, ‘is adapting to new communications technology.'” Inspired by Thamus, Plato, and all of the above, we might pause to notice the troubling conundrum built into the very idea of an “external storage medium” for the human mind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking literacy. There’s obviously a very strong case to be made for the idea that it’s precisely our development of external storage media — books and so on, and now the Internet — that has allowed us to accomplish so many of the great things that we as a species have accomplished, and that the very definition of wisdom must now involve literacy, and not just bare-bones reading and writing skills as promoted by godawful social engineering programs like No Child Left Behind, but a foundational knowledge of the great things that have been thought, said, and written in the past, along with — to ping another aspect of the Columbia report — the increasingly important ability to access information accurately. Profound forgetfulness of the past, now preserved in writing and increasingly in digital form, is the very definition of a dystopian dark age.
But that said, we’ll all be well-advised to keep an eye and ear on the judgment of Thamus as we live our way inevitably into the Brave New World of our collective cyberfuture. A crucial aspect of authentic wisdom is the ability, and more, the drive, to become aware of our guiding axioms, so that we can really see, know, and understand — and question and, when necessary, revise or reject — the assumptions by which we conduct our lives. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates famously said. Today we’re living in a period where technology’s power within and over culture and human life is reaching a kind of critical mass, just as Neil Postman observed and prophesied in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology — a book that begins with Postman’s recounting of the story of Thamus and his judgment on writing. We long ago passed the threshold where writing and literacy became an ineradicable and inescapable part of who we are, both societally and individually. As we hurtle toward a future along the lines of, perhaps, what the Singularitans are slavering to see, one of the simplest yet trickiest things we can do to keep our bearings and preserve our humanity — even as the very meaning of that word may begin to shift — is to remain awake and reflective about the changes it’s all working on our very souls.
Image credit: “Computer Business,” from Truthout.org under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)