Does Google make us stupider?

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Does Google make us stupider? Plato and Einstein battle it out.

Dr. Sebastian Groes takes an in depth look at our Literature Festival theme for 2013 – Memory

We all know the feeling when a word is on the tip of the brain, but we cannot actually reach it. It could be a historical fact, a forgotten title of a pop song or the name of the fifth Beatle. Anyone with a smart phone knows the temptation of looking up the answer via search machines such as Google. But we also, perhaps intuitively, feel a sense of danger in the knowledge that using such artificial cognitive technology could make our brains lazy.

The Internet seems to take away our ‘ready knowledge’, and other developments in the digital era undermine our minds in other ways. George Steiner said that human nature had changed because the internet gives us the capacity to look up anything so that we don’t need to remember anything anymore. In The Shallows, Nick Carr argues that our brain is changed by the internet, and that the distraction built into our online experience prevents us from deep thinking. Will Self argues that GPS systems weaken our mental compasses because our reliance on satellite tracking makes the hippocampus – the part of the brain that allows us to navigate through space – indolent.

The core of this problem lies in whether offloading our cognitive capabilities to tools and storage facilities externally to ourselves has a detrimental effect. This problem is not new. Two of the greatest minds in the history of science have thought about this. In Phaedrus, written 2275 years ago, Plato objects to books as a tool that helps us remember: ‘If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.’ Plato refers to books, or any other aids that help us remember, as ‘artificial memory’.

Two thousand years later, Albert Einstein argued the opposite: ‘Never memorize what you can look up in books.’ Einstein is in favour of mnemotechnical tools that allow us to store knowledge: rather cramming your brain full of often useless information (such as phone numbers), our grey matter could engage in much more interesting and creative functions if our working memory is freed up; and it saves time. Einstein would think of such tools such as books and Google in a less pejorative manner that Plato and consider them as supporting and augmenting mental capabilities and contribute to the art of memory.

More recently, the argument that the internet and Google make us stupider and lazier has found a counter-narrative, especially in work by scholars working in the cognitive sciences. In Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson also argues that the internet is indeed changing the way we think, but that it actually boosts brain power and makes us more, not less, intelligent. Indeed, rather than looking for evidence to affirm answers to suit their intuition, ideology or politics, we see that the smartest thinkers, such as Stevan Harnad and Itiel Dror, are starting to invent increasingly innovative and subtle ways of thinking about the problems the digital era presents us with. These scientists show that, for instance, we may offload static definitions of words onto a computer without any problem, but that the associative memory of humans is very much different from instance Google-based associative search. They also shows that our mental capacities are not simply lost because of cognitive technologies, but that they are changing, and that they might well trigger the next step in our evolutionary development .