Google and Memory

Monday, August 01, 2011

Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow discusses her research into how search engines affect our memory and are changing the way we remember information. Her paper in Science, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips” is believed to be the first research of its kind into the impact of search engines on human memory organization.


Betsy Sparrow

Comments [2]

Chris H. from New York, NY

Could you ask Dr. Sparrow if the new "memory habits" have changed students' ability to learn? That is, is there a long-term impact (good or bad) on the ability to learn things in the future, given that learning is an ability to one acquires?

Aug. 01 2011 01:37 PM
Peter Talbot from Harrison, NJ

Ms. Sparrow's general thrust that we have begun to shift our collective transactive memory to the "cloud" instead of maintaining it individually is interesting, and clearly more research needs to be done to determine any cumulative effects. I have noticed that this tendency to treat the internet as the "cliff notes" for everything has three negative effects:

1: our queries for data are governed by our ignorance too often, and do not always quickly or easily recover useful or meaningful data. We often search for words or phrases that fit our prejudices about the organization of data which return answers from inferior sources that match our predilections. It is nearly as hard to browse the internet as to browse the stacks of a research library, and harder to come up with serendipitous discovery because our searches don't put us near similar data or properly indexed sources.
The result is that learning from the internet tends to be quick but shallow. Better sources of data on the internet often are to be found only in "pay" sites or storefronts for libraries, publishers or journals that will take us off line.

2. Grammar and syntax in both internet queries and much free content on the internet is both poor and abbreviated. It echoes the present tense punch of early newspapers confined to single sheet space. Tenses all become present. Adjectives are floated but misused often. Even spellcheck as a tool is often ignored.
Research and writing sourced from or citing the internet tends to reproduce facile arguments that depend on rhetorical or idiomatic proofs rather than logical constructions. Paragraphs become sentences. Sentences become fragments. The medium is great for the dithyrambic utterances of the blogosphere, but does not promote prose, elegiac or any other style of literature. I'm not sure it makes us dumber, but it sure makes my kids less literate and more prone to summary and unsupported statements.

3. I've noted a tendency in my kids after longish bouts with surfing or video game playing of what I will call the "cheatcode" mind. They speed-read for key words or results and then parrot back answers or findings based only on their "knowledge" of vocabulary, but are unable to detect alternative uses of words or context that implies mood. Irony, for example, they find simply frustrating. Sarcasm is fine. They had no trouble with "et tu brute" but couldn't explain "I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him" without two hours of pulling teeth.

In "summary", the change that is working here seems to be an attack on modulation in the human voice even as the speed of return on query is improved. Everything seems loud and clear even when it is neither loud nor clear.

Aug. 01 2011 10:56 AM

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