Google generation: differently intelligent

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Not too long ago, having an excellent memory could make the difference. Today, an intelligent person is “the one that knows where to look for information in the only moment in their life when it’s needed”, to paraphrase Umberto Eco.

What more than technology is able to give us (almost) instantly what we are looking for?

On one side, if digital devices relieve us from the effort of remembering phone numbers, addresses, meetings and even birthdays, on the other they could make us ever more scatterbrained, if not stupider, even. In a bias: the Google effect.

Google effect

The Google effect describes the tendency to forget what can be easily found using online search engines.

If I asked you what the colors of the Burkinese flag were and you didn’t know, you would ask Google. The search engine would answer correctly, in a few milliseconds. As always.

We are used to get the answers we need with a click. Effortlessly and swiftly.

At this point, the question naturally arises: having constant access to an external unlimited memory that frees us from the need to remember information that we can instead find online, why should we make the effort to remember?

To investigate the Google effect and the technology that makes people stupid there is a research from the Kaspersky Lab, which interviewed six thousand adults in Western European countries and one thousand in the US, asking each of them information and data that would have been stored in their memory some time ago.

This is what emerged:

    • Half of the Americans that were interviewed answered that they preferred looking for information online rather than remembering it,
  • • 29% claimed that they would forget it just a few moments after learning it anyways,
    • 36% of Europeans claimed to “Google” before and think after,
    • 24% claimed that they would probably forget what they had googled just a few moments after closing their browser,
  • • 40% of the entire sample said that their phone contained any information they needed to know,
    • 90% of users of a technological device suffers from digital amnesia,
  • • 70% does not remember their children’s phone number,
    • 49% does not remember their partner’s phone number… it’s in their contacts anyways (and on chat services).

In summary, only those who grew during the era of telephone receivers still remembers their friends’ home numbers from that time: according to researchers, by now we are certain that the answers we need will come with a click, and we like to consider the web as a sort of external memory.

Not all evil comes to harm

It could seem counterintuitive, but memory is not – and it has never been – an effort that is solely assigned to the brain. Many studies show that we have always relied much upon other people, as well as journals and post-it notes, to remember. It is called transactive memory and it means that we store information not only in our brains, but in objects and people that surround us.

Therefore, remembering is not a good thing by itself, just as forgetting. Even if it is not easy to agree when we are forced to repeat many times the wrong PIN for a credit card: in general, the brain has only a certain storage capacity for information, similar to a smartphone. At some point, it is necessary to erase all the old photos and applications to get some new ones. And this brings us back to digital amnesia: the idea that our computers can in some way damage our memory.

Having always stored memories externally in other people and things, along with the inability to remember everything, shows how this “amnesia” is just a wise practice of delocalization.

In today's world, the intelligent person is "the one that knows where to look for information in the only moment in their life when it's needed".

Digital amnesia is different from the Google effect, because the first refers to the tendency to forget information that is stored on a digital device, while the second is the tendency to forget what can be easily found using online search engines. Even if the two tendencies are similar, as they consist both in forgetting something, both intentionally and unintentionally, the two phenomena are not to be confused.

Tim Wu, Law professor at Columbia University, wrote one of the clearest defenses for this new condition of bad memory: what would a person from the start of the 19th Century think if they could travel in time and talk with someone from today, hidden behind a curtain with a smartphone? That person from the past would be amazed by the ability of their counterpart to solve complex equations, answer elaborate questions and say quotes in other languages. They would think they were dealing with a genius (they would appear to us just as a person with a phone). Wu says that “with our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods, though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to”.

Better at remembering where to look

The good news, according to Maria Wimber from the University of Birmingham, is that the internet has simply changed the way to manage and store information. In summary, the Google effect does not make us stupider, just better at remembering where to look for some kind of information. And we don’t remember data as we did some time ago, because the internet knows everything.

A conclusion that is similar to Betsy Sparrow’s, from Columbia University: our mind relies on the internet in a similar way to what we do with the memory of a friend, a relative or a colleague.

We remember much less than we did time ago, but we remember well where that information can be found.

An effect that seems to extend to images too. A study from the Fairfield University showed that taking pictures reduces memories of images we have seen. An interesting element, in the era of selfies. Researchers noted that, after a visit at the museum, whoever took pictures remembered less objects and details than those that just observed.

Stupidity vs. distraction

In summary, do web and digital technologies make us stupider or just more distracted?

According to Genevieve Bell, vice-president of Intel and anthropologist, the answer is no. Technology helps us live in a smarter way. Being able to create a well-posed problem is an act of intelligence, just as the swiftness in extracting information and identifying the app that helps us find it.

Andrew Keen has the opposite point of view, claiming we have lost mental exercise and precision, saying that our minds are in some way more flaccid, just as an untrained muscle. And all the fault lies on the life on social media.

In conclusion, the debate is still open. Even online.

Laura Mondino

[1] Kaspersky Lab. (2016) Digital Amnesia at work, the risks and rewards of forgetting in business

[2] Lodha, P. (2019). Digital Amnesia: are we headed towards another amnesia. Indian Journal of Mental Health;6(1)

[3] Wu T., The attention Merchants, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

Wimber, M., Alink, A., Charest, I., Kriegeskorte, N., & Anderson, M. C. (2015). Retrieval induces adaptive forgetting of competing memories via cortical pattern suppression. Nature neuroscience18(4), 582–589.

[5] Sparrow, B., Liu, J., Wegner, D.M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science 05 Aug 2011: Vol. 333, Issue 6043, pp. 776-778

[6] Divining the Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing (MIT Press, 2011)

[7] Keen A., The internet is not the answer, Atlantic Books; Main, 2015

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