Google Effect: is technology making us stupid?

Can't remember phone numbers or birthdays? You may be suffering from the 'Google Effect' – a theory that we've outsourced our memories, safe in the knowledge that answers are just a click away. Genevieve Roberts investigates

Genevieve Roberts
Thursday 16 July 2015 07:44 BST
Unless we form rich connections in our own minds, we don’t create knowledge, we access it
Unless we form rich connections in our own minds, we don’t create knowledge, we access it (Alamy)

"Is the internet making us stupid?" I type. Press enter. Almost instantly, a raft of answers and articles on screen. It's an unsettling feeling that my first instinct – to Google my own stupidity – may be the root of my increasing daftness.

A recent study (you've probably forgotten it by now) suggests 90 per cent of us are suffering from digital amnesia. More than 70 per cent of people don't know their children's phone numbers by heart, and 49 per cent have not memorised their partner's number. While those of us who grew up in a landline-only world may also remember friends' home numbers from that era, we are unlikely to know their current mobiles, as our phones do the job. The Kaspersky Lab concludes we don't commit data to memory because of the "Google Effect" – we're safe in the knowledge that answers are just a click away, and are happy to treat the web like an extension to our own memory.

Dr Maria Wimber, lecturer at the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology, worked with the internet security firm on their research. She believes the internet simply changes the way we handle and store information, so the Google Effect "makes us good at remembering where to find a given bit of information, but not necessarily what the information was. It is likely to be true that we don't attempt to store information in our own memory to the same degree that we used to, because we know that the internet knows everything."

These findings echo Columbia University Professor Betsy Sparrow's research on the Google Effect on memory, which concluded, "Our brains rely on the internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found."

This even extends to photographs. A Fairfield University study in 2003 found that taking photos reduces our memories. Participants were asked to look around a museum, and those who took photos of each object remembered fewer objects and details about them than those who simply observed. Dr Wimber says: "One could speculate that this extends to personal memories, as constantly looking at the world through the lens of our smartphone camera may result in us trusting our smartphones to store our memories for us. This way, we pay less attention to life itself and become worse at remembering events from our own lives."

A Fairfield University study in 2003 found that taking photos reduces our memories (Getty) (Getty Images)

But is this making us more stupid? Anthropologist Dr Genevieve Bell, a vice-president at Intel and director of the company's Corporate Sensing and Insights Group, believes not. She says technology "helps us live smarter" as we're able to access answers. "Being able to create a well-formed question is an act of intelligence, as you quickly work out what information you want to extract and identify the app to help achieve this. To me, this suggests a level of engagement with the world that's not about dumbness." She gives the example of a new mother trying to work out whether their baby not sleeping is bad – and when to start worrying. "These are all questions that technology may be able to address quicker than calling your own parents," she says. "This isn't making consumers more dumb, instead it's helping them to think smarter."

She believes our biggest concern should be our mindset towards technology. "My suspicion is it isn't that the use of technology is making us dumber; instead it's a very human set of preoccupations and anxieties," she says. "Ultimately it's the anxiety about what technology means for us, what it means for our humanity, our bodies, our competency – and what it means to have new technologies in some ways threaten some of those things."

In contrast, Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember and The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us, believes we should be alarmed. "We're missing the real danger, that human memory is not the same as the memory in a computer: it's through remembering that we make connections with what we know, what we feel, and this gives rise to personal knowledge. If we're not forming rich connections in our own minds, we're not creating knowledge. Science tells us memory consolidation involves attentiveness: it's in this process that you form these connections."

He believes the combination of the Google Effect and the constant distraction of smartphones, constantly delivering information, is concerning. A Microsoft study found the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds today.

"There is a superficiality to a lot of our thinking," Carr says. "Not just the cognitive side, but also the emotional side. That not only reduces richness in one's own life and sense of self, but if we assume that rich, deep thinking is essential to society then it will have a detrimental effect on that over the long run. There will always be people who buck those trends, but I think it will have an effect of making ourselves and our culture a little shallow."

Carr believes our brains are not like hard drives, or refrigerators that can get overstuffed so there's no more room. In contrast, he says they expand: "It's not as if remembering and thinking are separate processes. The more things you remember, the more material you have to work on, the more interesting your thoughts are likely to be," he says.

Andrew Keen believes the combination of the Google Effect and the constant distraction of smartphones is concerning (Rex) (Rex Features)

Andrew Keen, author of The Internet is Not the Answer, says: "Everything now is accessible – though supposed facts on the internet are not very reliable. It gives huge power to the people who store our data." He believes the emphasis on the art of memory from civilisations such as ancient China has been lost. "Some people believe it creates mental discipline: the facts themselves less important than the discipline of remembering them. Minds are in some ways more flaccid – especially if we're dabbling in social media."

He believes the bigger issue is what it's freeing us up to do. He agrees with Carr that "technology is making us shallower thinkers, multi-tasking, unable to digest speeches, even songs, perpetually flicking". In response, he says what we need now is creativity and innovation. "We need to think eclectically and daringly," he says. "The big issue is how to teach creativity. We don't need to learn facts, to remember stuff is less important, so the nature of professions are shifting; teachers should bear this is mind. The question is, how do you teach children to think differently?"

Dr Wimber advises people to spend time offline to safeguard their memories. "We know from memory research that we only remember information we pay attention to," she says. "If we spend all our time online, or experiencing our lives through a smartphone camera lens, we might miss important experiences, and not commit them to long-term memory. Constantly looking up information online is not an effective way to create permanent memories. The best way to make information stick is to sometimes sit back, and mentally refresh what you learnt or experienced a minute, an hour or a day ago."

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