What does Google do to our brain?

The question was first raised by Nicholas Carr in his landmark piece for Atlantic magazine Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Key takeaways from his essay were

And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.


“We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.


The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets.


Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in ph...

progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing.He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.”Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).


Recently, Clive Thompson attempted the question again in Slate by asking Is Google Wrecking Our Memory? and he answers it in this way

The short answer is: No. Machines aren’t ruining our memory.

The longer answer: It’s much, much weirder than that!

And he goes on to explain this as

What’s really happening is that we’ve begun to fit the machines into an age-old technique we evolved thousands of years ago—“transactive memory.” That’s the art of storing information in the people around us. We have begun to treat search engines, Evernote, and smartphones the way we’ve long treated our spouses, friends, and workmates. They’re the handy devices we use to compensate for our crappy ability to remember details.

And frankly, our brains have always been terrible at remembering details. We’re good at retaining the gist of the information we encounter. But the niggly, specific facts? Not so much.


Wegner suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good “metamemory.” We’re aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we’re good at intuiting the memory abilities of others. Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you discover that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. They’re passionate about subject X; you’re passionate about subject Y. So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to notepads and encyclopedias, because we’re much quicker to query: Just yell a fuzzily phrased question across to the next cubicle (where do we keep the thing that we use for that thing?) and you’ll get an answer in seconds. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter.


And as it turns out, this is what we’re doing with Google and Evernote and our other digital tools. We’re treating them like crazily memorious friends who are usually ready at hand.


If there’s a big danger in using machines for transactive memory, it’s not about making us stupider or less memorious. It’s in the inscrutability of their mechanics. Transactive memory works best when you have a sense of how your partners’ minds work—where they’re strong, where they’re weak, where their biases lie. I can judge that for people close to me. But it’s harder with digital tools, particularly search engines. They’re for-profit firms that guard their algorithms like crown jewels. And this makes them different from previous forms of transactive machine memory.


Like Socrates, I am tempted to extrapolate the above examples to say that transactive memory provided us a shared knowledge about our relationships and a means of connecting and interacting with each other. With the ubiquity of Google we will be interacting with our relationships lesser which may be harmful to our relationships as already 24 hour TV, MOMPRPG videogames and tweeting/facebooking have wreaked havoc with our relationships. And like Socrates, I will be shortsighted in saying that.

We cannot stop the march of technology. People might not have liked writing, TV, mobile phones, texting, social media but the fact remains that these services have become part of our social fabric and we can not tear them away from our lives. Google as a ubiquitous search engine is here to stay and with time will become stronger, more intrusive and omnipresent. As a company it may disappear as many “build-to-last” companies have disappeared before it but then some other company will come to fill in the role. The ubiquitous search engine be it Google or any other one in future, is part of our social and mental make up. Our brains have rewired themselves to live with it.

However, there is no free lunch. So there will be some costs associated with this. The costs that come to my mind are that we will not be able to make connections between different events unless Google makes those connections for us like the one Sherlock Holmes makes in BBC’s The Hounds of Baskerville.

There will be much less serendipity. Though Clive Thompson mentions the following hypothetical example,

In fact, as transactive partners, machines have several advantages over humans. For example, if you ask them a question you can wind up getting way more than you’d expected. If I’m trying to recall which part of Pakistan has experienced tons of U.S. drone strikes and I ask a colleague who follows foreign affairs, he’ll tell me “Waziristan.” But when I queried this online, I got the Wikipedia page on “Drone attacks in Pakistan.” I wound up reading about the astonishing increase of drone attacks (from one a year to 122 a year) and some interesting reports about the surprisingly divided views of Waziristan residents. Obviously, I was procrastinating—I spent about 15 minutes idly poking around related Wikipedia articles—but I was also learning more, reinforcing my generalized, “schematic” understanding of Pakistan.

Now imagine if my colleague behaved like a search engine—if, upon being queried, he delivered a five-minute lecture on Waziristan. Odds are I’d have brusquely cut him off. “Dude. Seriously! I have to get back to work.” When humans spew information at us unbidden, it’s boorish. When machines do it, it’s enticing. And there are a lot of opportunities for these encounters. Though you might assume search engines are mostly used to answer questions, some research has found that up to 40 percent of all queries are acts of remembering. We’re trying to refresh the details of something we’ve previously encountered.

but I don’t think it will hold in majority cases. Moreover, this is a case of misplaced example. It may also have happened when people used book Encyclopedias for researching a topic or read books in search of quotes etc but now that since Google will be providing us information in the first link that it generates, there is a very little chance that will be click on the second link or be moved to read something that we were not looking for. The instantaneous gratification that we expect from Google will ensure that we do not learn any new thing unintentionally.

I occasionally teach GMAT to local Kuwaiti kids who have been raised on calculators from young age. Some of these kids are totally incapable of adding triple digit numbers. When I do multiplications and/or divisions in front of them on whiteboard, its like I am teaching them Greek or rocketscience as it goes over their heads. These are no illiterates. They work in mostly financial institutions and are there to prepare for GMAT so that they can go to US or UK to do MBAs etc. Yet their brains after having not used that faculty for so long are no longer capable of doing those simple sums.





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