“Try to remember … “

Do you remember the next four words of the first line of the song whose title I’ve borrowed for this article?

OK, too easy, but do you remember the pop group who had a hit with the song in 1965? What about the Broadway show in which the song made its debut? Who wrote the music? The lyrics?

Don’t worry. If you don’t know all of these answers, just enter the title in any online search engine and press “Enter.” If like me you used Google, you’ll get all of the answers from the summaries of the  first few listings, without even having to go to any of the pages themselves.

I knew four of the five answers, but I never would have recalled the fifth (“Who wrote the music?”) for the simple fact that I never knew the answer in the first place. But Google retrieved that answer, as well as offering 34,700,000 more entries with something to do with the title, everything from the complete lyrics to random webpages with the word “remember” in them, all in a reported 0.16 seconds. That’s — literally — twice as fast as the blink of an eye.

It’s hard to see how something as cool as a search engine can be a bad thing, but there are many experts and authors (not the same thing, this blog not excepted) who worry about the effect of online data on our ability to remember things.

That the same thing has been said ever since the first books were written — Plato, for one, lamented the destructive effect of writing on memory, which he associated directly with intelligence — doesn’t intrude into much of the present debate.

Now, in an article titled “Searching for the Google Effect on People’s Memory” in the July 15th issue of Science, John Bohannon summarizes a series of studies by Betsy Sparrow of Columbia that suggest that rather than eroding memory, the internet is changing the way we use it. To Sparrow and her colleagues, Google is a good thing — at least, it’s not a bad thing.

Sparrow and her collaborators ran several different experiments. In one, participants typed 40 bits of trivia into a computer. Half of the subjects were told that the information would be saved in the computer; the other half were told that the items they typed would be erased. The subjects were much more likely to remember information if they thought they would not be able to find it later.

In a second experiment, participants were asked to remember both the trivia statement itself and which of five computer folders it was saved in. People seemed better able to recall the folder location than the statement itself.

These and additional tests strongly suggest that we are quite willing to offload simple memory tasks to outside sources. That we do this in other contexts is already well known. “Transactive memory” involves sharing and cross-checking memory tasks with others. I might remember where we parked the car, while you might remember the names of the boss’s children we’ve just met at the company picnic.

What’s wrong with using a computer’s external memory? What makes it less worthy than using a book? Do we value the methods by which we learned things simply because we’re familiar with them? By what criteria is learning to calculate square roots by a form of long division superior to using a calculator? (I’m old enough that I can do it — can you?)

In his reaction to the Science article, Jonah Lehrer is quite positive about the uses of computer memory:

One of the virtues of transactive memory is that it acts like a fact-check, helping ensure we don’t all descend into selfish solipsism. By sharing and comparing our memories, we can ensure that we still have some facts in common, that we all haven’t disappeared down the private rabbit hole of our own reconsolidations. In this sense, instinctually wanting to Google information – to not entrust trivia to the fallible brain – is a perfectly healthy impulse. (I’ve used Google to correct my errant memories thousands of times.) I don’t think it’s a sign that technology is rotting our cortex – I think it shows that we’re wise enough to outsource a skill we’re not very good at. Because while the web enables all sorts of other biases – it lets us filter news, for instance, to confirm what we already believe – the use of the web as a vessel of transactive memory is mostly virtuous. We save hard drive space for what matters, while at the same time improving the accuracy of recall.

In contrast, Lehrer cites what he calls a “contrarian” view by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows (What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains):

If a fact stored externally were the same as a memory of that fact stored in our mind, then the loss of internal memory wouldn’t much matter. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. When we form, or “consolidate,” a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge. The associations, moreover, continue to change with time, as we learn more and experience more. As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but “the cohesion” which ties all those facts and experiences together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion?

While I sympathize with Carr’s concern about the danger of divorcing facts from their contexts, I have no desire to go back even a decade or two, to a time when I would never have encountered Carr’s views in the first place.

I can do a lot more with the internet’s search capabilities than look up the song “Try to Remember” by The Brothers Four, from the musical The Fantasticks, music by Harvey Schmidt and words by Tom Jones. (And if you didn’t remember, the next four words are “the kind of September.”)

Using portal sites as well as simple search engines, I can order out of print books from stores all over the world. I can access magazines, newspapers, and journals which would be otherwise utterly unavailable to me. Thanks to the internet, I have found more good, previously unknown (to me) books to read in the last few years than I encountered in the three decades previous.

I’ll bet that if you had been able to ask a newly-enabled reader a decade or two after the publication of the first relatively affordable printed books if he would choose to go back to borrowing manuscripts from the local abbey, he would have been as reluctant to go backward then as I would be to do so now.

Still, something needs to be said about “gatekeeper” problems, so next time we’ll look at a new initiative to decommercialize the digitizing of the world’s books and at the main ideas in Eli Pariser’s new book, The Filter Bubble.

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2 thoughts on ““Try to remember … “

  1. Maybe like Mao on the French Revolution , it’s a bit early to be judging the effect of the internet on our collective psyche.Looking back over the effects of Gutenberg do we have a clear assessment of the influence of the book from the Bible to Harry Potter? We should have that at least clear by now.

    • I agree that we’re like a potted missionary, deciding how the soup tastes before the cooking’s done. This is a very hot topic right now, as you know, and everybody’s getting into the act — including yours truly.

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