The Fog of Life: “Google,” Memory, and Thought

Last week a study suggesting that the ability to Google information is making it less likely that we commit information to memory garnered a decent amount of attention and discussion, including a few of my own thoughts in my last post.  In addition to writing a post on the topic I did something I almost never do for the sake of sanity, I followed the comment thread on a few websites that had posted articles on the story.  That was an instructive experience and has led to a few observations, comments, and questions which I’ll list briefly.

  • Google functions as a synecdoche for the Internet in way that no other company does. So when questions like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” or “Is Google Ruining Our Memory?” are posed, what is really meant is more like “Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?”, etc.
  • Of course, “Google” is not an autonomous agent, but it has generated and made plausible a certain rhetoric that rather imprudently dismisses the need to remember.
  • People still get agitated by claims that the Internet is either bad or good for you.  Stories are framed in this way in the media, and discussion assumes this binary form.  Not much by way of nuance.
  • On the specific question of memory in relation to this study and the subsequent discussion, it is never quite clear what sort of memory is in view, although it appears that memory for facts or some variation of that is what most people are assuming in their comments.
  • The computer model of the brain is alive and well in people’s imagination.  How else could we explain the recurring claim that by offloading our memory to “Google” we are “freeing up space” in our memory so that our “processing” runs more efficiently.
  • Does anyone really believe that we, members of present society, are generally in danger of reaching the limits of our capacity for memory?
  • There is a concern that tying up memory on the retention of “trivial” facts will hamper our ability to perform higher order tasks such as critical and creative thinking.
  • “Trivial” is relative.  Phone numbers are often given as an example, but while knowing some obscure detail about the human cardio-vascular system might be “trivial” to me, it wouldn’t be so to a cardiovascular surgeon in the midst of an operation.
  • Why are we opposing two forms of knowledge or “intelligence” anyway?  Aren’t most of the people who are able to think critically and creatively about a topic or discipline the same people who have attained a mastery of the details of that same topic or discipline? Isn’t remembering the foundation of knowing, or are not the two at least intimately related?
  • Realizing that total recall of all pertinent facts in most cases is too high a bar, wouldn’t it at least be helpful not to rhetorically oppose facts to thinking?
  • The denigration of memory for facts seems — be warned this is impressionistic — aligned with a slide toward an overarching cloud of vagueness settling over our experience.  Not simply the vagueness by comparison with print disciplined speech that accompanies a return to orality, but a vagueness, distractedness, or inattentiveness  about immediate experience in general.
  • Will we know nothing in particular because we know where to find everything in general?

On that last note, consider Elizabeth Spires’ poem, “A Memory of the Future,” published in The Atlantic, and make of it what you will:

I will say tree, not pine tree.
I will say flower, not forsythia.
I will see birds, many birds,
flying in four directions.

Then rock and cloud will be
lost. Spring will be lost.
And, most terribly,
your name will be lost.

I will revel in a world
no longer particular.
A world made vague,
as if by fog. But not fog.

Vaguely aware,
I will wander at will.
I will wade deeper
into wide water.

You’ll see me, there,
out by the horizon,
an old gray thing,
who finally knows

gray is the most beautiful color.

4 thoughts on “The Fog of Life: “Google,” Memory, and Thought

  1. I think I am back to proxy-blogging.

    The linear degradation of ideas in the Spires poem is just absolutely fascinating and stunning.

    Alan Jacobs had a quote in “The Art of Reading in an Age of Distraction” which struck me last night as I read it; this notion of reading for mere information rather than for beauty and pleasure and Whim (to coin his thesis). Here is what he said interestingly about reading holy texts, most notably the Bible:

    “One enemy of good reading is confusion about which mode of attention is appropriate to a given book. I am certain that this very confusion makes it almost impossible for anyone to read—genuinely to read—the Bible. In both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, narrative and other more-or-less literary forms are dominant, which seems to call for a strategy of reading for understanding similar to what one might use in an encounter with, say, Homer; but these books’ status as sacred text suggests, to many modern readers anyway, that their purpose is to provide information about God and God’s relation to human beings. “Strip-mining” the Psalms, or the Song of Solomon, or even the more elevated discourses of the Gospel of John, “for relevant content” might not seem like a promising strategy, but many generations of pastors have pushed it pretty hard, as though the Bible were no more than an awkwardly coded advice manual.”

    The way we read, then, is of vital importance to how we view knowledge. I think the church for some time now has been modeling this phenomena that we see illustrated in this post (and the previous one, as well). No longer do people memorized texts of Scripture. Or for that matter, read whole chunks at a time. It is now about pulling out the “awkwardly coded advice” for life.

    Just wondering out loud if there is a parallel here, or if I just needed an excuse to leave a long comment on your blog.

    1. Well, it may be just an excuse to leave a long comment, but there is also a connection. My first thought is to say that the inverse is also true: “The way we view knowledge is of vital importance to how we read.” So reciprocal relation there.

      The point about memorizing sacred text, a form of piety that, tellingly, seems a bit antiquated and quaint, is very much related. Memorization, to say nothing of meditation, internalizes a text in a unique way that just knowing I can search for the text on a Bible app doesn’t come close to approximating.

      Committing to memory requires time, effort, attention, etc. that fixes the knowledge in the psyche in a significant way.

      Jacobs’ paragraph speaks to a utilitarian view of knowledge that betrays an industrialized/mechanical view of the human person and the world. Knowledge is there to be used, rather than inhabited. We deploy it, rather than being transformed by it.

      1. Ooooo… “Knowledge is there to be used, rather than inhabited. We deploy it, rather than being transformed by it.” Yup. Gonna take (with appropriate citations, of course) that one.

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