When it first became popular, google was seen as the hero against the evil empire of microsoft, but as is often the way success and growth have seen increasing concern at how powerful the company is that basically controls how the world (except maybe for China – a pretty big exception!) finds information. This week a new study showed that the world wide web, and in particular the search technology that makes it navigable like google, are changing the way we process and store information in our minds.
We are now much more likely to look up information than to remember it, but more subtly, the study also showed we are more likely to remember where the information is than what it is. Much like the famous study of London taxi drivers’ brains, it appears the internet is changing the actual shape of our brains.
I find this a fascinating result for all sorts of reasons. I am aware that my natural impatience means I am ever less likely to finish reading to the end of a newspaper article, which apparently just makes me yet another one of the 90% so of the population who are the same. Our attention spans appear to be getting shorter as we search for ever more (and probably shallower and less nuanced) pieces of information.
Of course, the same accusations of intellectual corruption were made of novels in the 18th and 19th century, and probably of books in general before that. The fact is though that in pre- or barely literate cultures, what would now be considered astonishing feats of memory were more or less routine; whether people were reciting the long lists of the ancestors, the Mahabharata, Homer’s Odyssey or the King James bible, it was all learned by rote and memorised. I doubt many modern humans could, or would even be inclined to learn to do the same. This is not only due to the fact that we can easily access the texts at google books, or just go out and buy them, it is probably also that we don’t have the time or the motivation to do so. There is a positive side to this as well of course, if we can store and retrieve information easily, we have more time to learn and create and interact and share. We don’t actually need to memorise these things, and so, the apparently almost endless flexibility of our brains is freed up to do other things.
Still, there is something communally binding about a collectively shared story that is performed, revised and kept alive through being shared. A few years ago my father told me he was learning poems off by heart on his morning commute to work (by tram at the time) and I have always been full of admiration for those who can recite poems by heart at parties or round campfires. So, in an effort to prevent my attention span wandering even further off, and in the hope I’ll actually have something to contribute at the next party, I’m going to have a go at actually memorising a piece of literature. Now all I have to do is find a piece to memorise. Perhaps google can help me out ….