For the most part, Bill Keller's latest column reads like a typical entry in the "the Internet's making us stupid!" genre, but this seems like an odd problem for him to single out:
Joshua Foer’s engrossing best seller “Moonwalking With Einstein” recalls one colossal example of what we trade for progress. Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.
Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.
Obviously, Keller is not opposed to the invention of movable type, but he seems to think the Internet is taking us across some kind of tipping point where we start to remember less and less useful information. There's some limited sense in which this is the case. I hardly ever ask my friends to confirm specific factoids anymore, and trust that Google will be able to get me to the right answer soon enough. But when I look up those factoids, I remember what I find.
The idea that the Internet is reducing the amount of raw information people can memorize is frankly bizarre. The average reader of this blog has a depth of knowledge about American government that would be extremely rare a couple decades ago. Today, it takes two seconds to find out who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. Before the Internet, you might stumble upon that in a newspaper article, if you're lucky, or in a very up-to-date almanac, but it'd be a much more cumbersome process. Pre-Internet, a lot of legislation was only covered in inside-the-Beltway publications like CQ or Roll Call, and if you didn't live in D.C., accessing it was tough. Now, between TPM, the Hill, National Journal, our own 2 Chambers and any number of other sites, anyone anywhere can have updates on most important legislation in a matter of minutes.
Of all social maladies people want to pin on the Internet, "people not knowing enough things" is probably the least plausible I've heard floated.
Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.