Technology makes us nervous. There was a great public response to the publication some weeks ago of a Columbia University study indicating that the Internet is changing the way we remember information. What Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues found is that we are less likely to remember information if that information was readily available to us on the Internet. Is this a cause for alarm? There’s no doubt people are alarmed. But should they be?
The study is worthwhile and important; but like so much of the best work in cognitive science, it serves merely to confirm something we already know.
Consider: I dog ear my books. That way I can remember where I left off reading.
Or perhaps we should say: That way I don’t need to remember where I left off. I let the book itself, with its bent down corner, remember for me.
There’s nothing fancy, up-to-date or Internet age about this example, to be sure, but it is striking nonetheless. It’s a down-home illustration of the fact that we naturally tend to offload our memory tasks onto the world around us. This makes good sense. Why go to the trouble of relying only on our interior cognitive resources to keep track of what is going on around us when the world is right there and can serve reliably as a store of information about itself?!?
I say we do this naturally. I use the term “naturally” advisedly. According to the old view of ourselves, the one that comes down to us through philosophy from Plato, through Descartes, to mid-twentieth century cognitive science, a person is an autonomous locus of decision-making and action. We perceive; we represent the world in our heads; we make plans; and we act.
The sense-represent-plan-act picture is a heroic one, but it is biologically implausible. I don’t need to memorize the layout of the physical environment around me — this desk, this room, this city, this country. After all, the desk, room, city are there before me and we are built — through evolution — to have ready sensory access to it.
Shut your eyes. Can you remember the detailed layout around you? It turns out that beyond the broad outlines — the basic schematic organization of what is where — you probably cannot. But this is no cause for alarm. We have quick and easy access to the world around us, through eye movements, head movements, body movements.
Does it actually even seem to you as if you have a detailed model of the world around you in your head? Be careful. Yes, it seems to you as if the world is there for you. But not in your head. It’sthere. Around you. In reach. And we are made — through evolution — to get the information we need, when we need it.
We have evolved not to be representers-of-the-world, but to lock-in and keep track of where we find ourselves. We use landmarks and street signs to find our way around; arithmetical notation makes it possible for us to calculate with big numbers; we wear wrist watches so that we can know the time without needing to know the time; and we build libraries so that we have access to what we need to know, when we need to know it.
The so-called Google effect is merely the latest expression of a cognitive strategy that is almost as certainly as ancient as our species.
There is no question that the new technologies are changing our lives. But here we need to remember: The more things change, the more they stay the same. All tools extend what we can do, and so, all tools have the potential to extend our minds. Are the changes wrought by the new media of the last 15 years as profound and far-reaching as those brought about by earlier technological and media revolutions such as, to name only a few, the invention of writing, or telegraphy, the telephone or the TV? Time will tell.
Is Google making you stupid? Is it ruining your memory? No. Only a biologically unrealistic conception of ourselves and our relation to the world around us could lead us to give an affirmative answer to this question.
We should look elsewhere for the sources of our anxiety.