Eroded memories, improved accuracy
As soon as I saw this story about how internet use is subtly reshaping our brain activity, I expected immediately to see hysterical, hand-wringing coverage. Cord's story that I link is responsible coverage—he points out that different doesn't automatically mean worse—but when it comes to technology and how it's changing us, you usually see nothing but hysteria in mainstream media. But plugged the head researcher's name into Google News and didn't really see too much to worry me. Most people reported it pretty straightforwardly.
The crux of the research is this people's realization that information they need is easy to search online means they are less likely to memorize it. However, this doesn't mean their brains are degrading. On the contrary, people are organizing their brains so that they're better at finding stuff, aka researching. As long as the internet is there for us, knowing how to find something matters more than just knowing it.
I have no problem with this. Setting aside the shiny new technology, the fact of the matter is humans have spent a great deal of our history trying not to have to memorize stuff, in part because it's a waste of time and energy and in part because we literally have too much information that we need to know to simply store it all in our brains. So we outsource. The main way we do this is to write stuff down. But we also build filing cabinets, Rolodexes, libraries. But the obvious advantage of technology is that it makes all this faster, making memorizing stuff even less necessary. I've become addicted to Evernote, myself, which means that I practically have to remember nothing, except how to find out what I need to know. Which gives me more brain space for remembering that awesome song I liked so I can play it on Turntable.
Another benefit of this is memory is imperfect. When we commit something to memory, it tends to get degraded over time, because our brains store stuff less perfectly than a computer does. You see this problem a lot when people are having technology-free discussions. They think they remember something important, but they get the details wrong. They say "10,000" when they mean "100,000". What I've noticed since the rise of the internet is people are more concerned about their own personal accuracy. Stuff that didn't matter before—did that movie come out in 1986 or 1988?—now matters more, because it's so easy to look it up. We used to let that shit go, as a people. Now we look it up on our phones.
While some lament the way this changes the rhythm of conversations, I actually think it's a good thing. We need more enthusiasm for accuracy in our culture, and that's a good place to start. I look forward to the day when people who go on cable news shows all have very easy to navigate mini-computers in front of them, so when they're jumping into an argument, they are better armed with actual facts that they have verified before they start flapping their jaws. I mean, it won't change anything about Fox News—they'd probably ban such devices—but it would do a world of good for everyone else.