Jonah Lehrer responds to the “Google is Ruining our Brains” hype around a recent study. He focuses particularly on transactive memory, an idea focused on the notion that part of how we “know” anything is knowing who to trust on what. We can’t know everything, so we figure out who’s an expert on a given subject and we rely on them:
And this is where the internet comes in. 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.
It’s a clever point, and gets at the heart of what’s really going on in this debate. The fundamental question being asked here is, “is trivial, fact-based knowledge valuable in and of itself?” In other words, is there a compelling reason for me to know that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President, or can we forget those things because they’re so easy to look up?
Some things, as Susan Orlean smartly described, we can’t Google. But why not fill our heads with that stuff, and leave what’s Google-able to Google? The end of Jonah’s piece quotes Nicholas Carr, the most vocal proponent of the “Google is ruining our brains” notion, and he makes a good point, but I’m not sure I buy it.