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Posted at 02:00 PM ET, 07/15/2011

Google and our delegated brains


Who are you? What am I doing here? Maybe Google will tell me. (KAREN BLEIER - AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
A new study about Google's impact on our memories, published this week in the journal Science, reminds me of the joke about an old couple who were taking a memory class.

"It's worked wonders!" the old man tells his friend. "I remember everything now!"

"What's the name of the instructor?" his friend asks.

"What's that flower, the pink one with thorns on the stem?" the old man says.

"A rose?"

The old man nods. "Hey, Rose!" he yells. "What's the name of that memory instructor?'

What’s even sadder is I had to Google the joke.

That's all of us, these days.

We don’t know facts. There’s an app for that! In fact, the study suggested that the vague sense that the information we need is On The Internet Somewhere may actually make it harder to remember. Asking the study participants true or false questions and then showing them words related to the Internet significantly slowed their response time. “It’s fine!” we insist. “Google’s got my back!”

It’s not just that we’re lazy. It’s how we were taught. "The most important thing is to learn how to think," people say. “You can pour in the facts later.” Scan most college course catalogues and you will see a slew of classes with names such as “Approaches to Philosophy,” “Approaches to Postmodernism,” “Approaches to Rhinos” (slowly and not from behind) and “Approaches and Methodologies for Approaching Things.” But learning how to think with such a sparse supply of things to think about is as effective as learning to digest without eating anything first.

Life, these days, is an open-book test. It’s the calculator argument. Why not use them on tests? It’s not as though you don’t have them in the real world. And we are smart enough to realize this. The study reveals what we’ve long suspected -- we're all using Google as an intellectual crutch. Commit information to memory and regurgitate it later? There must be something better to do with our spare hours, like see “X-Men: First Class” a ninth time. (Editor’s note: Ms. Petri has actually seen “X-Men: First Class” eight times.)

Once we thought the point of education was to become more interesting to ourselves. But when are we ever by ourselves? The Internet exists. Stranded on a desert island with no reading material? There will probably be wi-fi.

What’s the point of storing information in the valiant little nub of salts and proteins that comprise the human brain? IBM’s Watson supercomputer can retrieve the information faster than even Ken Jennings can.

Retrieving facts, though is one thing. "I could have sworn I left it over here!" we mutter, thumping around our memory houses like old men in search of their glasses. “Next to what Patrick Henry did and who Capricorn was.” The challenge is knowing if it's right. Google can supply us with infinite facts. It is the greatest repository of collective memory we’ve ever had. It even remembers things that did not happen!

And we have fewer ways of being able to tell. There once were time-honored ways of distinguishing rot. Now, misheard snatches of Wikipedia find their way into legitimate articles, and conspiracy theories abound. Rule 34 of the Internet states that if it exists, there is probably pornography about it. Rule 935, which I have just invented, states that if you want evidence to support a claim, a thorough enough Googling will inevitably produce some, although if your claim is wrong it might be in a weird font.

We newspapers would fact-check, but in an attempt to beef up our readership we are busy putting together slideshows of Shia LaBeouf Looking Either Thoughtful Or Constipated, and we do not have time. Libraries? What are libraries for but the free wi-fi? Look something up in a book? There’s got to be a better way. Our desire for instant gratification applies to facts as well. Google is a research tool? Nonsense. Google is a tool that prevents you from doing real research.

If it’s not online, why bother? Our friends are online. They’re in our Google Circles. Our memories are online. Facebook even tells us when we’re due for nostalgia. Our maps are online. Thanks to GPS, we can feel confident of our direction at all times without actually knowing where we are. Taken metaphorically, that’s what our search engine crutch is doing to the rest of us. “It’s fine. Google’s got our back.”

Barack Obama said last week — quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan — that we are entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts. He must have missed the memo. "I dislike social security!" you say. "My spirit just doesn't take to it! Let me find some facts on Google to agree." But we are coming at these things the wrong way. Facts are rather neutral. If we had more of them, we'd know that.

If history or science or literature or any such thing were a living organism, facts would be the nucleotides that made up its DNA. We have this bizarre notion that we can know things without knowing facts. But without facts, all you have is opinion.

Facts were once the framework on which we wove together coherent thoughts. But coherent thoughts are so 1870. Stray bits of knowledge were once the delightful bric-a-brac of a lived-in mind. Instead, these days, our minds are empty houses, decorated with celebrity gossip and the vague sense that we shouldn’t raise the debt ceiling.

But it’s fine! We’ll know where to find those facts, if we need them! Google has our back.

They say you always find things the last place you look. These days, that’s probably inside our heads.

Worried you could be suffering from the Google effect?Take the quiz at Blogpost to see if you’ve been rewired.

By  |  02:00 PM ET, 07/15/2011

Tags:  Google, kids these days, memory

 
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