This question is posed by Nicholas Carr in this book, “The Shallows: What The Internet Is
Doing to Our Brains.” The best chapter in the book is “Search, Memory” which details the biology of how short term memories are turned into long term memories that create a fabric of knowledge that we call wisdom. As people learn more, and their brains make physical connections with the information, the person develops a point of view on life. Long term memories are called up to be used in working memory, and more connections made.
When people begin to rely on Google search for information rather than actually learning things, this fabric of knowledge remains shallow. The deep learning that creates warp and woof of culture diminishes. The culture that surrounds us influences the content and character of a person’s memory. My memories of peace marches protesting the Vietnam war are different from the memories of Egyptian students in Tahir Square. Each memory reflects the culture of our time. When learning is superficial, memories become more like infotainment than a symphony. Playwright Richard Foreman frets that we are becoming “pancake people — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” Carr goes on to say:
Those who celebrate “outsourcing” of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamental organic nature of biological memory. What gives real memory its richness and its character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is its contingency. It exists in time, changing as the body changes. Indeed, the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation, including the generation of proteins to form new synaptic terminals.
Biological memory is in a constant state of renewal. Computer memory is static — you can copy the file, but the file remains the same. It doesn’t learn, it doesn’t update, it doesn’t develop a new way of looking at the old information. We can pretend that search engines are better than actually having to remember things, but for knowledge to become part of our experience, we have to physically assimilate it in our brains. A computer disk can become full, but our brains never become full. There is always room for more learning. Carr says:
We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them, with each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.
The crux of the book is summed up on page 196. “The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn’t just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share.”