Sep 21, 2010

Google as a Verb: Does It Replace "Remember"?

Driving from the Oakland Airport into San Francisco last week, I saw a huge billboard on the freeway advertising the show "Tales of the Maya Skies" at Oakland's Chabot Space and Science Center.

Being a Maya astronomy junkie, naturally I was intrigued. But I'd never heard of the Chabot Space and Science Center before, and I was traveling about 65 mph, in the car alone.

A couple of years ago, maybe even as recently as two, I would have fumbled around in my purse for a pen and scribbled the web site URL displayed on the billboard onto whatever scrap of paper I could find. Or maybe I'd just jot down "Cabot Science Center, Oakland" and call information, or look it up online later. Instead, I found myself speeding past the sign, thinking, "Oh, I'll just Google it tonight." I figured inputting "Maya" "museum" and "Oakland" all together would net the desired result--which it did, a few hours later in my hotel room when I remembered to look it up.

Now, you might think, What a cool thing technology is! How great that we have Google for this purpose! I'm not so sure about this, though. Because instead of writing down what I needed, or god forbid bothering to commit it to memory, I willfully chose not to remember information I knew I would later need. And it makes me wonder what such an automatic and cavalier dependence on search engines might do to my memory, or anyone's, over time. Will we not bother to remember certain pieces of data that were once natural for us to commit to memory? If so, will the vacuum be filled by something else, something useful or fulfilling? Or will we just naturally start devaluing the power of memory and instead evolve into a species that lives in a continuous present, with limited or radically different powers of recall? Would we be better off for this, or not?

As a memoirist, this intrigues me, and as a human being, well, it kind of disturbs me to think about. (Though over dinner in SF that night a friend pointed out that I still needed to remember to Google the keywords. So at least there's still that.)
I rely heavily on my powers of recall every day, but what if--assuming I were a frequent blogger which, as you've probably noticed, I am not--instead of having to remember the details of what happened last year, or even last month, I could just go into the search function on my blog and pull it up? I look at my daughters, ages 12 and 8, and can't help wondering: what kind of people will they become if they don't have to memorize data to succeed? If, in fact, your ability to retrieve data quickly and efficiently becomes more important than your ability to store it within your own mind? It seems to me that the way we use our brains will change. To some degree, I suspect this has already started to happen.

And don't even get me started about what texting has done to this next generation's communication skills and fluency with language. U really don't want 2 know.


An Unlikely Retirement said...

I wonder as well. I remember when I never had to look at my contact list at work - the phone number of each person I called regularly was firmly in my memory. Now, between my cell phone and the ability to call straight from my contact list at work, I can barely remember my own number. Addresses, birthdays, the distance to Mars - knew them all. I don't even try to memorize facts anymore, because I know they answer will be easy to find. I see the difference in my children - where I once spent hours memorizing, they spend but a few. Hours replaced by learning shortcuts and search engines.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you. Great post.

Dana824 said...

I'm actually okay with this. When you look at what our minds are capable of, basic recall is one of the lesser skills. Higher level skills like using prior knowledge to synthesize new ideas and evaluating those ideas have the potential to be much more useful for society. I like that google frees our mental energy and time for these tasks. Children today are developing more skills in the areas of problem solving and vision.

Memory is not the only skill in our society that is changing - handwriting is no longer as useful, and has been replaced with fast typing. I know what you mean about texting though, drives me crazy!

Also: you might want to look into Bloom's Taxonomy. Wikipedia:

Darwin said...

Very interesting theory, Hope. It reminds me of a recent radio report I heard talking about the prospect of the shrinking hippocampus from using GPS systems.

I found another article on the subject at:

You've got to wonder, with all the change in our lifetime, just how much evolution is taking place!

Carrie Wilson Link said...


Gutsy Living said...

Hope, I've been thinking about writing a blog post about the future of education and our kids today, after reading how Bill Gates sees universities becoming a thing of the past with online classes instead, kids typing at a younger age, so not learning how to write, and the effects of this on the brain etc.

JeSais said...

hmm. I kinda have to disagree that this is a bad thing. Think about it, you had to remember to google "maya" and "museum" and "oakland" so you did in fact engage your memory, but just in a different way. It's how our brains are adapting to large amounts of incoming data: we learn to categorize. Have you been following any of the research about brain function and internet use?

Here's Clay Shirky's take, "Does the Internet Make You Smarter" from WSJ:

and on the flip side: Nicholas Carr's "Does the Internet Make You Dumber" (the gist of which is now in his book The Shallows)