Do you know what time it is?

This morning a tweet from internet scholar Evgeny Morozov pointed me to this article: 

"Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips."

The article concludes that, “The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.” This is not surprising. Already instead of writing down (let alone committing to memory) the address of a destination, I’ll instead rely on being able to look up the address in Gmail on my smartphone when I get above ground from the subway. This is one silly example, but I’m sure you have many of your own about using the internet in place of your own memory. I think the interesting thing to consider, however, is what effect (if any) this sort of practice will have on our brain power in the long run.

A few years ago I remember seeing some buzz about whether or not cell phones were dumbing down our capacity to remember, the idea being that the less you use your memory, the worse your ability to remember becomes. Atrophy of the brain sort of thing. Instead of having to memorize the phone numbers of all of your closest acquaintances, family members, work contacts, etc in order to have quick access when dialing, you instead can store these contacts in your phone. A study at Trinity College in Dublin concluded that younger generations were worse at remembering strings of digits like phone numbers, and the obvious culprit was increased reliance on our mobile devices. 

Reading Morozov’s tweet this morning, I was reminded of an example given in a sociology course I was a TA for this past year: if someone asks, “Do you know the time?” a typical response might be to say “Yes” and then check the time on your watch or phone before responding with the time. This is interesting because the fact that you had to check the time shows that when you answered “Yes” what you really meant was “No, but I can quickly find out.” This might be a matter of semantics, but I think it actually hints at something more. As a person who carries around a watch or a phone with me, I am someone who knows the time. If instead, however, someone asked you, “Do you know what year George Washington died?” you would probably answer “No.” Why the difference? Why not say “Yes” and then look up the answer on your mobile device? True, at present it does take marginally longer to look up the answer to a question like this than it does to merely check the time, but as computing power and internet speeds increase, that difference will become negligible.

An Einstein anecdote comes to mind: Einstein is attributed with saying that he did not know his own phone number, but he knew where he could look it up. This comforts me. To me this means focus on thinking well rather than on recalling facts and figures (or perhaps it means only memorize the things that you can’t easily look up?). However, a scene from Fahrenheit 451 also comes to mind: outlaws sitting around a fire, reciting entire books they’ve committed to memory in order to preserve them in a world where their precious words are banned. Such a feat already seems daunting; will it seem downright impossible as we increasingly expect less and less of our own mental storage capacities? 

In the end, I think it is wrong to think of mobile devices or the internet as being the cause of decreased mental capacity. They are tools, and like any tools, they are only as useful as the use you put them to. The internet could just as easily be used to learn more and more and more than was ever previously possible. It’s up to each person whether they keep their noggin sharp or let it become just another dim relay in a global data circuit.