Is google making us stupid? No. We keep hearing the argument that relying on technology makes us less smart somehow. Plato was probably the first person to make this argument. His target? Writing – his argument was:
So, too, with written words: you might think they spoke as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever. Once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend; it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid.
Plato’s suggestion was that we learned best through discourse, and that writing would, well, make us stupid. I’m clearly unqualified to call Plato dumb, but it’s a dumb argument. Here’s the latest version from Steven DeMaio:
Studies have shown that using our memory improves reasoning and creativity. Yet, because of our increased reliance on technology, few of us can even recall phone numbers or appointments anymore. Try using your memory more often by dialing numbers by hand or picturing your weekly calendar in your mind.
This line of argument drives me up the wall. You can see the faulty assumption here – that if we’re not remembering phone numbers, then we’re not using our memory. It’s as though we have one part of brain that is set aside only for remembering phone numbers, and if we’re not memorising phone numbers,then we’re not using that part of our brain. That’s clearly not true. The problem is not whether we’re using our memories or not, the problem is in allocating our attention and memory correctly.
DeMaio actually gets to this point in the longer version of the article – he talks about the benefits of memorising the names of all of his students. I agree that this is a very good use of memory. But there’s a lot of stuff that I’m better off leaving to my distributed memory, much of which is aided by technology. This is how we are able to deal with the rapidly increasing amount of information that we are faced with these days (beautifully documented and discussed in this post by Venessa Miemis).
The key to dealing with all of this information is to outsource as much of the aggregating as you possibly can. My phone can remember phone numbers. Wikipedia can remember when the Magna Carta was signed. My twitter network can remember all the great stuff going on at the Open Innovation Summit right now in Orlando. All I need to know is how to access the information (and how to back it up).
Doing that lets me concentrate on the things that I’m good at – filtering and connecting. We don’t get new ideas by memorising. We get new ideas by making new connections – figuring out what information is important, and synthesising it. One of the reasons that information is increasing exponentially is that we’re getting better at processing it. This is due to the extra brain time that we’re able to free up by outsourcing memorising.
By letting us focus our concentration on making new connections, technology that remembers for us makes us smarter.