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Search and forget

The internet is not making us dunces. We are just fine with not knowing what information we want.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2011 22:28 IST

Remember how about three years ago American technology writer Nicholas Carr fired a salvo against the internet through his article ‘Is Google making us stupid?’? He bit the hand that fed him by arguing that the internet was “tinkering with [his] brain”, as easy access to readily available information was rendering him indolent — not unlike the argument in the early 90s when the ‘cable TV is making us lazy’ line was doing the rounds and made many TV viewers use it as an excuse to go to the loo during commercial breaks while watching their favourite soap operas.

But Mr Carr’s criticism of Google had its share of sceptics who understood that the more you remember, the more you forget. Some Luddites at Harvard University and Columbia University, however, are now back trying to convince us that Google is indeed fooling around with the way we use — or don’t use — our minds. The search engine is causing mental atrophy among its dedicated users, they argue. In a paper titled ‘Google effects on memory: Consequences of having information at our fingertips’, these anti-Googlers deduce from four experiments that “when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it”. In other words, they don’t remember the info but remember where they can find the forgotten info. This not only gives a 2.0 kick to the ‘ends don’t justify the means’ argument but also reminds us of Socrates’ scepticism on the development of writing, or the public perception of Gutenberg’s printing press when it was introduced, both of which were feared during their times to stimulate mass amnesia.

But should we be really bothered about such a kerfuffle over the internet allegedly making us dunderheads? In this day and age when everything from bank account numbers to credit card details to phone numbers are outsourced, what’s the harm in ‘outsourcing’ (boring and factual) information to a website when it can be re-accessed in a jiffy? Just like those lifesaving yellow post-its on the fridge. Only if you can manage to find where you last kept the fridge.

[PS: We don’t quite remember whether we used Google to write this editorial.]