Julian Barnes once declared that
Memory is identity. I have believed this since… oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life, you cease to be, even before death.
At least since Locke (or perhaps Plato, you can find pretty everything in-- or read everything into-- the Phaedrus), we've linked memory and identity: Barnes' declaration that "what you remember defines who you are" would have made sense pretty much any time in the last several hundred years. This is one reason arguments about the impact of the Internet on memory, and on our ability to remember, can be so passionate.
Since it's been at least three days since the New York Times and many other outlets reported on it, this won't be news to many readers, but Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues have just published an article in Science examining how Internet use affects how people remember-- specifically, how it affects transactive memory. Still, I feel compelled to write something about it, if only to have some raw material for the book manuscript.
As Livescience explains, transactive memory has
been around as long as humans have communicated. We've always relied on experts within our group (which used to be other humans) and, with the invention of the printing press, stored information in books. In those cases, we had to remember only who or what held the information.
"We've always had these people that know things. For example if I want to know about baseball I'd ask my husband," said study researcher Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University. "The Internet is no different."
She expands on this point in the article (behind a firewall):
Storing information externally is nothing particularly novel, even before the advent of computers. In any long term relationship, a team work environment, or other ongoing group, people typically develop a group or transactive memory, a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information.... The present research explores whether having online access to search engines, databases, and the like, has become a primary transactive memory source in itself. We investigate whether the Internet has become an external memory system that is primed by the need to acquire information. If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example, do we think about flags—or immediately think to go online to find out?
Relying on our computers and the information stored on the Internet for memory depends on several of the same transactive memory processes that underlie social information sharing in general. These studies suggest that people share information easily because they rapidly think of computers when they find they need knowledge (Expt. 1). The social form of information storage is also reflected in the findings that people forget items they think will be available externally, and remember items they think will not be available (Expts. 2 and 3). And transactive memory is also evident when people seem better able to remember which computer folder an item has been stored in than the identity of the item itself (Expt. 4). These results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology. Just as we learn through transactive memory who knows what in our families and offices, we are learning what the computer “knows” and when we should attend to where we have stored information in our computer-based memories. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools (8), growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.
As they conclude,
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.
Sparrow also talks about her work in this video:
Unfortunately, not everyone has been that judicious in reporting on the work. The Guardian ran with the headline "Poor memory? Blame Google," which really isn't he point of the research. Buzzom, whatever that is, went with "Google is gradually killing our Memory Power," on the grounds that "over dependence on search engines to retrieve information might not be a great idea if you want to stay mentally agile." Livescience runs with "Is Google Messing with Your Mind?" I could quote others, but you get the idea.
But as Sparrow points out, her experiment focuses on transactive memory, not the Proustian, Rick remembering the train as Elsa's letter slips from his fingers, feeling of holding your first child for the first time, kind of memory: they were tested on trivia questions and sets of factual statements. I'm reminded of Geoff Nunberg's point that while arguments about the future of literacy and writing talk as if all we read is Tolstoy and Aristotle, the vast majority of printed works have no obvious literary merit. We haven't lamented the death of the automobile parts catalog or technical documentation, and we should think a little more deeply about memory before jumping to conclusions from this study.
The real question is not whether offloading memory to other people or to things makes us stupid; humans do that all the time, and it shouldn't be surprising that we do it with computers. The issues, I think, are 1) whether we do this consciously, as a matter of choice rather than as an accident; and 2) what we seek to gain by doing so.
There are some things I don't remember, and don't try to. I like to cook, but I rely on cookbooks: even when I'm making familiar dishes (like scones, which I've come to love since Cambridge), I'm happy looking up ingredients and proportions. I haven't memorized a phone number since my wife got her cell phone ten years ago. Today, it no longer even occurs to me to try to memorize a phone number; instead, I'm diligent about putting them into my address book, which (in theory anyway) syncs it onto my laptop, phone, and iPad. I don't need to remember them, because my devices remember them. And why is it okay to let them remember on my behalf? Because my phone can do more with the information than I can: it can read the number and make a call.
This magnetic pull of information toward functionality isn't just confined to phone numbers. I never tried to remember the exact addresses of most businesses, nor did it seem worthwhile to put them in my address book; but now that I can map the location of a business in my iPhone's map application, and get directions to it, I'm much more likely to put that information in my address book. The iPhone's functionality has changed the value of this piece of information: because I can map it, it's worth having in a way it was not in the past.
On the other hand, there are things I do make an effort to remember. When I read academic books, for example, I take copious notes, and I underline and annotate the book; and I do so both because these interactions make me a more focused and thoughtful reader, and because creating things that I can refer back to later help fix the argument in my own mind. Of course, I also have tons of articles, book reviews, etc. on my hard drive; I have thousands of bookmarks on Delicious; and I have things Tweeted, posted on Facebook, and so on. But there's still great value in having these ideas fixed in my mind, in a way that allows me to compare a new book to others, to build my own ideas on top of them, etc.. And the point is, the act of creating those records (both digital and physical) is what fills and sharpens my memory. I take notes so I won't need them: the note-taking helps me remember.
Finally, there are things that I never made an effort to remember, but which I know I can "recall" because I have things like an augmented visual memory in the form of my Flickr account. What color is The Orchard's main building? Is the National Gallery's West Wing covered in marble or finished concrete? I don't know, but I know I have pictures of them both, and could find out.