THULANI MASHIANE

Remember the days when information was only available in libraries, in sections of countless books divided by subject or in articles in old yellowed newspapers and magazines? It was probably worth the trouble if you still remember that without having to Google it.

In 2013 the UN predicted that 40% of the global population would be using the Internet by the beginning of this year. The Internet has become the quickest and most convenient way to access information. There are thousands of online searching platforms, known as search engines, that allow users to search for specific information, creating a giant digital library. Google has grown from a search engine to a study partner, philosopher, counsellor, doctor and memory bank. In 2011, Internet research company comScore Data Mine reported Google to be the first web property to reach over a billion unique visitors globally.

The Daily Mail reported that, “Our reliance on Google for fact-checking and finding basic information has made us forgetful. The Daily Mail quoted research that found that individuals viewed search engines as extensions of their own intelligence. It also found that individuals quickly forgot information they searched for online but were more likely to remember the information if they believed that it had been deleted from the Internet.

Research conducted by Harvard University echoes this. Students who answered a series of trivia questions with the help of Google were more confident in their intelligence than students who answered the questions without the use of the Internet. The researchers concluded that, “Using Google gives people the sense that the Internet has become part of their own cognitive tool set.”

Harvard psychologists Adrian Ward and Daniel Wegner warn in the Scientific American journal, that people are less likely to recall memories and facts if they are stored on the Internet. “Our work suggests that we treat the Internet much like a human transactive memory partner (a person we share personal details with). We offload memories to ‘the cloud’ just as readily as we would to a family member, friend or lover.”

Ward and Wegner add that because the Internet has a vast amount of information available and can produce it more accurately at a quicker rate than most people’s memory, it can “undermine the impulse to ensure that some important, just learned facts get inscribed into our biological memory banks. We call this the Google effect”. They give the example of the 2013 movie Her, in which actor Joaquin Phoenix plays an introvert writer facing social difficulties who finds a computer with an advanced operating system and artificial intelligence which he treats as a “human transactive memory partner”.

In an interview with Newsweek, one of Google’s founders Sergey Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.”

The effect of the digital age and its continual change always creates scholarly reaction and debate, whether negative or positive. And The Atlantic debates, “Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine.”

Illustration: Simon-Kai Garvie

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