Google is destroying your memory

July 15, 2011 by Amara D. Angelica

(Credit: stock image)

Well, OK, maybe not totally destroying it, just making it unnecessary to rely on friends, libraries, books, notes, and other forms of “transactive memory” (external systems), thanks to the rise of Internet search engines, Wikipedia, and other Internet tools.

So says Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow, co-author of an article in Science Express.

“Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things,” she said. “Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.”

Creative forgetting

Sparrow’s research reveals that we forget things we are confident we can find on the Internet. We are more likely to remember things we think are not available online. And we are better able to remember where to find something on the Internet than we are at remembering the information itself.

But what is the quality of what we’re finding with these random crowdsourced tools? Maybe it’s time to take another look at The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains? Do we have any way to know what’s real on the Internet any more? Speaking of, why are schools still forcing students to memorize if they have all these great tools?

“Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization,” said Sparrow. “And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding.”

Transactive memory tools

OK, that’s all good, but we are still stuck with unstructured search tools with millions of random hits and an unwieldy kluge of software and hardware tools to access our electronic alter egos. (That’s not knowledge, that’s texting, to paraphrase Truman Capote.)

So let’s see, I use Google Chrome bookmarks in a complex hierarchy, Instapaper “Read later” (which I never do), Kindle and paper books, countless desktop folders with terabytes of files, thousands of random audio and video recordings…

And then there’s lifelogging tools, like Lifelapse for iPhone, which I just started experimenting with (takes a photo every 30 seconds and lets you share it via a one-minute video) and Lifenaut, which lets you create a “mindfile” that preserves biographical pictures, videos, and documents in a digital archive.

But none of these tools really provides deep structured access to reliable, credible information. That may have to wait until [email protected] shows up….

Meanwhile, what tools do you use to remember, organize, and archive knowledge?