Google It – Are We Losing Something?

I’m pretty confident that most of us have been on both sides of the following situation at one time or another.

You need to some information, maybe it’s the name of an author to a book, the answer to some sports trivia , or an answer to a “How do I…” question. You ask the people around you, maybe your spouse, a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor.  You might even call someone on the phone.  Someone gives you the answer.  That’s known as transactive memory.

Transactive memory is information we retrieve that’s stored externally to ourselves.  Prior to search engines and computer databases, this external memory resided in our network of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers… basically, when we needed information that we didn’t have, we turned to the circle of people we knew who might have it.

The other day I read an article in The New York Times on transactive memory.  It reported on a study that examined how using a computer search engine, such as Google, changes the way we think.

If I’m understanding this right, our memory is not as sharp for information we know we can retrieve from another source other than our brains.  When people know they have to remember information that they might not find elsewhere, they remember it better.

The researchers found that we are adapting to being connected to these repositories of information just as we have been connected to our social circle for information.  They report, “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found. This gives us the advantage of access to a vast range of information—although the disadvantages of being constantly “wired” are still being debated.”  See http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/pdfs/science.1207745.full.pdf

I don’t deny that I look up a lot of stuff through computer search engines.  Having it at my finger tips when I type a sermon is terrific.  It saves a lot of time.  I don’t have stop to figure out who has the information. I don’t need to pick up the phone to call a friend for the answer, I can type the keywords into a search engine instead.

Yet, I wonder if over time, we will stop calling people in our social circle for answers.  The convenience of looking it up while we’re working on the computer or checking it on a smartphone to settle a bar bet is undeniable.  (I also wonder if we will stop trying to remember so much, but that’s another question for another time.)

But when we look it up rather than asking a friend or family member or co-worker do we lose some relational connection?  While we might call a friend on the phone to ask, “Who was that starting third baseman on the 1962 Mets?” we might also talk about the team and its truly abysmally comic record.  If we’re enjoying the conversation, we might start talking about other stuff: our families, our jobs, our concerns, or our celebrations.  When people are part of our transactive memory, we can potentially strengthen our relationships with each other.  But if we use computer search engines to find the answers to all our questions, we lose an “excuse” to call people we know for answers.  (As a corollary, we lose the random call that can help break up the routine of our day.)  Without calling for the information, we potentially lose our serendipitous connections with each other.

Retrieving information through our computers or smartphones is very efficient.  But I wonder whether pursuing efficiency in this manner diminishes our relationships over time.

Click on the link to read the article.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/15/health/15memory.html?scp=1&sq=Google%20search%20memory&st=cse

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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One Response to Google It – Are We Losing Something?

  1. Excited to read your blog Uncle Quentin! I can definitely relate to things lost to the notion of “Googling It”. In school I notice very few notes takers, although this could be attributed to the caliber of student, I am inclined to think that many know they can always “Google It”. It prevents us from committing things to memory by note taking and truly engaging with the speaker because we’ve substituted their presence with the ever present internet. Thanks for sharing!

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