A few weeks ago, I wrapped up a writing course that I was teaching during the summer term with a class discussion of Nicholas Carr’s essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” from the July, 2008 Atlantic Monthly. The gist of Carr’s piece is that easy access to online databases is having a profound effect on the way we process and store information — something that comes as no surprise to those working in neurocognition, information processing, and memory, of course. Google exec Larry Page’s statement that Google scientists are “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale” seems to alarm Carr, who argues that Google’s drive to integrate search functions with AI systems mirroring — or even exceeding — the capacities of the human brain signals a lack of respect for the “fuzziness of contemplation.”
To be fair, a large part of Carr’s point in his piece isn’t so much to prophesy that the increasingly external localization of memory spells the end of cognition altogether — he also tells us to be “skeptical of [his] skepticism” — but rather to lament that a decade of internet use has conditioned him to lose focus in any information that requires longer than a few seconds to absorb and commit to memory. But I was reminded of Carr’s article again when I made a recent stop by cognitionandculture.net (a favorite stopping point) and followed a link posted there to a recent study by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner, entitled “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips”. It’s a great little report — I’ll leave it to you to go ahead and browse through it — but the final paragraph really caught my attention, and provided what I felt was a great rebuff to the histrionic undercurrent of Carr’s article. They conclude that “human memory [is] 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, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.”
This last statement really struck a chord with me, as a scholar working primarily with texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As I thought about Carr’s article and the research by Sparrow et al, I began to think about the sort of relationship I have, as a relatively young scholar working in a complex historical time period (stage dramas from 1550 ~ 1610), to information that I need and use in my own projects. When I started my graduate studies about six years ago, as a Master’s student, our faculty were excitedly talking about a new digital archive the department had recently subscribed to, Early English Books Online, a rapidly growing archive of English texts from 1473-1700. I’ve used this archive extensively in my research throughout my graduate career. Whenever a secondary text would cite a primary period piece that seemed relevant, I would log into EEBO right from my desk through a VPN client and download an original printing in pdf format.
Certainly, getting information on Puritan arguments against stage plays c.1600 via EEBO is nothing like checking Google Maps to see where the nearest dry-cleaning shop is located, or to look up how long Rex Grossman has been playing in the NFL (8 years? Really?). Just by virtue of working within a specific historical reference, I encounter many names, dates, and bits of information that I then memorize through the usual means, placing them in a larger constellation of historical events and influences. Despite nearly fifteen years of internet access (in varying forms, from 36K dial-up to 3G on my Blackberry), I’m still a “book” guy. I have entire shelves of books, many of them physically older than any human being alive (an edition of five of Shakespeare’s plays from 1865 sits just a few feet away), and I constantly turn to them for more information. EEBO may simply be nothing more than a means of shrinking the world, making it easier for me to review items here in the Pacific Northwest that I would otherwise have to travel to the Huntington, Folger, or British Museum archives to access.
Yet if it’s not possible for me to externalize the location of much of the information that I use in my own research just yet, it’s certain that technology will make this possible quite soon. When that times comes, I have to wonder what historical research will look like; hyper-text with embedded links to passages in, say, a pdf of the original print run of Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, rather than footnotes to out-dated secondary editions? How will this change our expectations for faculty members and students alike? My current work is definitely well-rooted in old practices and mindsets — in-depth footnotes, close reading of various works as an aid in establishing period context, and so forth. I’ve spent time in the dust of history, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even if that “dust” was freshly printed out in 1.5x zoom, stuck in a three-ring binder, and perused with a highlighter and cup of coffee in hand — nothing that they would allow me to do in the Folger, I’m sure). But as soon as I can use my smartphone to access a facsimile of Hamlet to settle a debate over orthography in a particular passage during a chat at a conference, I think it’s safe to say that the next era will have already arrived.