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Empty Minds, Empty Hearts, Empty Lives

Do you remember when you used to have a memory? Do you remember when you could actually remember stuff and when you actually needed to remember stuff? You know, stuff like phone numbers or recipes or Bible verses. Those days seem to be nearing an end. An interesting new study from psychology professors at Columbia University, the University Of Wisconsin-Madison, and Harvard University comes to this rather startling conclusion: “We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools.” It’s not just that we are no longer remembering things, but we are entrusting to our tools the things we used to entrust to ourselves. In this way we are becoming symbiotic with our tools, with our machines, forming an interdependent kind of relationship.

It is the ease with which we access information through the Internet that has gotten us here. The days of solving our questions by going to the library, searching the index system and looking for the book in the midst of all the shelves are long since gone. The days of walking over the bookcase and pulling out the relevant volume of the encyclopedia are gone as well. Instead, we now head straight to our computers or cell phones or iPads—whatever it is that we use to connect to the Internet.

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and 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. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

Just like people used to think “book” when they wanted information, we now think “computer” and “Google.” With information so easily accessible and so bountiful, we have less reason than ever to invest the time and effort necessary to move that information into our minds—to fully internalize it. Instead we trust that the Internet will retain it and we value only the ability to know where to find it. The more convinced we are that the information will always be available to us online, the less likely we are to memorize it. Instead we just remember where we can access it when we need it again.

We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found. This gives us the advantage of access to a vast range of information—although the disadvantages of being constantly “wired” are still being debated. It may be no more than nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.

Did you catch that? We now relate to the Internet like we used to relate to our community of friends and coworkers. As Christians we now relate to the Internet in the way we used to rely on our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We are more dependent on the Internet today than on the people around us. And when we lose our connection to the Internet, we lose our connection to all that is most important to us.

What we are seeing is the death of memory because we believe we no longer have a need for memory. Through symbiosis, we have begun a reciprocal relationship with the Internet in which we give it our allegiance and it promises to hold our memories for us. It holds the things we have written, the places we have been, the photos we took—even the Bible verses we love.

This new study reinforces one of the applications I draw in The Next Story—that there is a cost to outsourcing memory, to forgetting the value of memorizing what is most important to us.

“Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory. What gives real memory its richness and its character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is its contingency. It exists in time, changing as the body changes.” Where a computer takes in information and immediately stores it as data, the human brain continues to process that information and turn it into a form of knowledge. Biological memory is a living memory; computer memory is not.

What is committed to memory, what is installed there through the labor of memorization, is of special significance. We commit Scripture to memory, not as a functional habit, but because the discipline of memorizing it forces us to meditate on it and allows us to call it to mind at any time. Putting it into our brains aids us as we seek to put it into our hearts, understand it in a more holistic sense than mere data, and then live it out through our lives. We commit favorite poems to memory because we can then recall them at opportune times as we revel in their beauty. We stare at our loved ones, memorizing their features, noticing the little details, building a picture of them in our minds and in our memories.

But as we outsource our brains to digital media, we threaten our ability to make information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. We train ourselves, not to remember, but to forget. Empty minds will beget empty hearts and empty lives.