Before the ubiquity of the Internet, getting the answer to a question such as when was the computer invented could take a long time and some serious effort. You might call a friend, read about it in a book, or even go to the library. Now answers can be as close as your nearest digital device.
In a Scientific American article, “The Internet Has Become the External Hard Drive for Our Memories,” psychologists Daniel Wegner and Adrian Ward discuss what using the Internet can mean for human cognitive abilities. They asked students to research trivia online and then tested them on recall. They found that those who used the Internet believed that they were smarter when they gave the right answers than those who did not use the Internet. The researchers’ conclusion:
These results hint that increases in cognitive self-esteem after using Google are not just from immediate positive feedback that comes from providing the right answers. Rather, using Google gives people the sense that the Internet has become part of their own cognitive tool set. A search result was recalled not as a date or name lifted from a Web page but as a product of what resided inside the study participants’ own memories, allowing them to effectively take credit for knowing things that were a product of Google’s search algorithms.
Wegner and Ward suggest that the more we rely on technology answers to trivial questions, the more the possibility of creating a true merger between the human brain and technology, resulting in an “Inter-mind.” They see this possibility very positively:
As we are freed from the necessity of remembering facts, we may be able as individuals to use our newly available mental resources for ambitious undertakings. And perhaps the evolving Inter-mind can bring together the creativity of the individual human mind with the Internet’s breadth of knowledge to create a better world—and fix some of the set of messes we have made so far.
The hopefulness of these researchers is very refreshing when others argue strongly that computers make us dumb (see my post, Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb?)
Still, we cannot assume that freeing previously used brain space to remember facts such as what is the name of that actor on the screen or when was the March on Washington will necessarily lead to cleaning up the “messes” of the world. The latter involves keen social abilities and complicated thought processes such as making connections, logical thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving. These abilities are not somewhere in our brains simply waiting to move over into vacated space. They have to be cultivated and practiced.
Fortunately, educators are working to do just that in many ways from advocating that everyone learn computer science because it embodies new ways to evaluate and solve problems to teaching critical thinking to incorporating active learning in curricula. Let’s hope that these efforts ensure that our Inter-minds use the new room in our brains for the kind of thinking that will make the world a better place.