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.