Landing : Athabascau University

Study: why bother to remember when you can just use Google?

Depending on your point of view, the results of the research reported on here may be a cause for great concern or for celebration. Most notable among the findings is that, in the Internet age, we tend to remember how to find facts that may be useful rather than the facts themselves.  I suspect that some might see this as an issue negatively affecting our intellects, precisely as Socrates bemoaned the effects of writing on our ability to think. They would be right, to a point. Personally, however, I think this is a good thing, because it lets us better concentrate on how to use and link those facts.  It is a continuation of a process that began with the invention of signs, language, painting and (especially) writing, and that has given us the ability to gain a far richer and more useful view of the world, offloading and distributing our cognitive processes to create scaffolding for ever more powerful and complex ways of understanding. This research does not suggest a great difference in kind. However, it does starkly show that we shape our tools and that our tools shape us, deeply and significantly. 

It notably affirms George Siemens's theory of Connectivism. This is good supporting evidence, if more were needed, that we are offloading our cognition into non-human entities, in a way that is significantly different from simple transactive memory. Whether or not it is a good thing, it suggests that the skills that we are developing relate to our ability to traverse human and non-human networks, so any theory of learning should consider us as being part of a broader web of knowledge.


  • re: the rise of tech. devices and tools like Google that are increasing our ability to "practice" knowledge

    You might enjoy Margaret Archer's ideas about the relationships between the natural order, the practical order and the social order in knowledge (figure 5.1 p. 161 and 5.2, p. 179) and the important role of material culture (e.g., technology) in enabling us to practice/embodied knowing, which plays a pivotal role in our knowledge:

    These relationships are summarised in figure 5.2. This diagram also helps to show what is meant by the ‘primacy of practice’, as other than a political slogan. Practice is called a ‘lever’ or ‘fulcrum’ in order to underscore that it is itself only a midpoint in total action.33 Nevertheless, practice is truly pivotal because of the role that material culture plays as a ‘translation medium’ which, through ‘technology’, enables theory to be the growing point of practice, and which, by virtue of ‘instrumentation’, enables the codified diffusion of future embodied knowledge.

    Re: us being a part of a broader web of knowledge:

    p. 307-308 Structural and cultural properties (SEPs and CEPs) only emerge through the activities of people (PEPs), and they are only causally efficacious through the activities of people. The emergence of a structural property like ‘centralisation’ (e.g. an educational system), results from a long interaction chain of intended and unintended consequences, and it only exerts its powers of constraint and enablement by shaping the situations in which people find themselves (educationally).

    ...Each new ‘generation’ of agents either reproduces or transforms its structural inheritance, but this heritage itself conditions their vested interests in doing so, their aspirations for stasis or for change, the resources they can bring to bear, and the strategies which are conducive to structural morphostasis or further morphogenesis.


    Carmen Southgate July 18, 2011 - 3:51pm

  • I agree that our brain has learned to adapt. During my childhood, no one had cell phones and everyone had one or two numbers. All phone numbers of interest were committed to my memory. This applied to all kinds of useful and useless information. Now with a cell phone on me at all times, I only remember the quick dials, abbreviations. These are essentially tags that I assigned to the data of interest. The serve to help me find information I need. Increasingly, I remember how to find the information but not the information whether it is on my computer, in a filing cabinet, a book, or the net.

    We have to sift through massive volumes of data and there is just too much communication. Its only natural that the brain would adapt and improvise. Or maybe our brains are becoming lazy. Tempting argument but then how would you explain the increasing rate of new innovations.


    Nazim Rahman July 19, 2011 - 11:32am

  • Thanks for comments Carmen and Nazim! I've got hold of the book and will explore: sounds like an interesting perspective that parallels some of my thinking albeit in a very different universe of discourse. 

    Re laziness, I've not come across unequivocally clear direct evidence yet of the positive side effects of offloading cognition. Intuitively it seems likely that we ought to be able to benefit from the spare brain capacity that is released through doing so and there's no doubt at all that our ability to do so has been by far the most significant and necessary factor in all human progress for millennia. There is also plentiful evidence of positive changes in some brain functions for a wide variety of computer-mediated tasks like gaming and searching, but not correlated with diminution in capacities elsewhere.  I'd be really interested to learn whether there is any direct relationship at all between increased reliance on knowing where to look and increases in our other abilities.

    Jon Dron July 19, 2011 - 1:08pm

  • Sherlyn Cordero

    BBC News also covered this story. They included a link to Wegner's chapter wherein he proposed the transactive memory concept.


    I don't see the offloading of factoids as necessarily a bad thing. Keeping track of placeholder data is a lot less mental overhead than memorizing the information wholesale. Building out an external mind allows us to focus energy on problem solving, pattern matching, and understanding overall systems.


    Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen discuss the related concept of extelligence in Figments of Reality:

    All the extelligence in the world is useless if you lack the intelligence to use it; on the other hand, without extelligence we humans would still be back in the caves, rather literally reinventing the wheel in each generation. We are what we are because of a remarkable complicity between intelligence and extelligence. Intelligence invents but cannot reliably and accessibly remember what it has invented; extelligence can remember but (on the whole) not invent. Extelligence deals in information; intelligence in understanding.

    Sherlyn Cordero July 21, 2011 - 1:38pm

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