“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I remembered the quote, of course, but had to Google who said it. It was Alphonse Karr, the nineteenth century French critic, journalist and novelist. That just about sums up my relationship with Google. As one who was born before the Internet, I tend to rely on my memory, but I use Google to double-check, and find out the bits I don’t know, or have forgotten. My sons, digital natives, born in the Internet Age, seem to have a different approach entirely. When my eldest came home and announced that he had to learn a list of a thousand words for his Latin exam, I was horrified that his teacher could have given them such a list just before the exams and expected them to learn it virtually overnight! Then I found out he’d been given the list eighteen months previously!
Why hadn’t he bothered to learn the words when they were given to him? Well, it appears that you can use Google translate to meet all your Latin vocabulary needs, so there’s no pressure to memorize long lists to do your homework! His marks had always been good so he never felt the need to commit the words to memory
And then I found out that in his Physics exam they are given the formulae, given the periodic table, given everything that back in my day we had to learn off by heart!
With 24/7 access to Google, it seems that memory is dead!
Except that it isn’t! To use Google at all you need something inside your own head, something to guide your searches, and to assess the validity of what comes out at the other end! To evaluate any search engine query implies a scaffold of knowledge upon which you can hang the new knowledge. While the Internet presents an enormous potential for expanding, and holding our knowledge, it cannot replace knowledge itself. It cannot replace the thought processes and thinking that went into creating it, or the thinking that goes into recreating it in our own heads.
This puts me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s notion of Fast and Slow Thinking. He characterises two types of thought – System 1 thought, which is fast, subconscious, stereotypical thought. We reach conclusions based on recognised patterns and deeply ingrained metaphorical categories. System 2 thought, on the other hand is slow, effortful, consciously arrived at: logically thought out thought. It is far less frequent than system 1! With the same inputs, the conclusions reached by these two types of thought may be entirely different.
Both these types of thought are necessary, or at least unavoidable. Sometimes we need to act quickly, and reach conclusions rapidly. We cannot always retire to a barrel like Diogenes to think things out thoroughly. The main purpose of a sound education, framed this way, is to create deeply ingrained habits of thought which will render our fast thinking more efficacious and sound. If we are used to thinking issues through, our initial intuitions should be more thoughtful. Hopefully. If we have spent time learning how to think things through logically and thoroughly, our basic instincts should be more sound.
I have a suspicion that our relationship to memory needs a similar division into what we have committed to memory,and what we have available to us stored in our network! We cannot possibly remember everything! We have at our fingertips an almost instantly available resource allowing us to find out just about anything, anywhere, any time. This may include facts and information that we have not previously processed in our minds. We need this type of information often to make quick decisions about whether to sell our shares in South American zinc, or to determine what snake has just bitten us, and what action to take. A quick Google search revealed that indeed researchers talk about two types of memory. Memory which is external, stored on paper, in group knowledge or, increasingly on computers or networks is called transactive memory.
We also need, however, a wide range of information committed to memory which allows us to assess and evaluate other information. I have a feeling that anyone who tries to use Google translate, for example, to read Cicero in Latin will come completely awry unless they already have a large number of Latin words in their memory already. According to research (Sparrow, et al, 2011), we apparently remember far less when we know we will be able to Google the answer when we need to. We are growing more dependent upon remembering where we can find the information that we need, than in actually remembering the information. We are in short, becoming symbiotic with our machines.
This is a somewhat disturbing thought, but the growing importance of transactive memory indicates the increasing degree to which our cognition is social. It is easy, though, to draw the conclusion from this that we do not need to memorize anything anymore. I suspect it simply means we will have to remember more, so that all that extra information we can access, makes sense!
Betsy Sparrow, et al. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Science 333, 776 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745