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As Google, Facebook and ‘spam’ enter life’s vocabulary, debate continues in education, science, sociology and economics about whether web power and technology are harmful or beneficial.

Human Memory

Now comes a report suggesting that far from being a great search tool to tap into a bottomless reserve of information, ‘Googling’ may harm our memories.
Columbia University, New York has published research from experiments suggesting that people depend on the internet for memory support, as they rely on friends and family or colleagues at work.

They claim that people expend less energy in remembering what can easily be recalled by clicking on screen. People find it easier to remember how to find out something than to remember the thing itself, and are more certain to recall information they thought had been deleted.

Human Brains

Conflicting evidence and advice abound about the effects on (especially young) brains of excessive mobile/cell phone use. Long-term effects of living near pylons, transmitters, masts and essentials of modern living in an information-driven, technological-biased world, are not agreed.

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), Nicholas Carr claimed ‘the web was depriving our mental faculties of the regular workouts they need’. Two years earlier, he’d asked: ‘Is Google making us stupid?’ He agreed the net benefitted us, but at the cost of reading and thinking deeply.

Predictive thinking is now commonplace, as if human beings are only capable of repeating what they did previously. Carr said that over time human thought was moulded by ‘mind tools’ like alphabet, maps, printing, clocks, and then computers.

However, the brain is shaped by what it processes, so danger lies in relying solely on rapid sampling of data fragments from many sources. We lose the power to think, analyse and reflect.

The Opposite View

Jonah Lehrer, in Wired Magazine, quoted Socrates who moaned that books were creating forgetfulness in people’s souls, how people thought the printing press the work of the Devil and the telegraph would cause mental illness.

Lehrer reckoned (2010) technologies benefitted the mind, that performance, visual perception, memory and attention are improved by computer games, for instance. A 2009 University of California study supported him. They found Google-searching improved selection skills and analysis.

The jury is still out. InTech, automation technology, application and strategy magazine in 2009 carried a view from Jim Pinto that dependence on smart phones and satnavs that do everything the brain should do, was unhealthy.

He also felt, though, that using services like banking, holiday bookings and shopping on line, games and puzzles improved memory power by forcing people to remember passwords, numbers and ID details just to survive daily life. However, the danger in that was that people suffered information overload.

The point seems to be, that someone somewhere will fear the worst whenever a new invention emerges. Sometimes they are right to be concerned, but that doesn’t stop change. The brain has to adapt to keep up.

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