The Internet and Human Meme-Ory

From digital to-do lists to online diaries; from GPS to online ticket booking; from online memos to Facebook Birthday and Anniversary reminders; from binge watching shows to just passively viewing everything YouTube recommends for you—life without the internet seems like a life without food in today’s world. The urban world is largely on a digital diet, and everyone has the liberty to choose what appeases their appetite. But there’s something about this diet (as with all diets) that is detrimental to one of the most distinguishing features of human beings: their complex memory system.

Difficult to digest, is it? The scientific world, with evidence in hand, begs to differ. Psychologists say they have confirmed what people have long suspected: the Internet is being used as a personal memory bank for information, a phenomenon referred to as the "Google effect."  To understand this in greater detail, it is essential to take a detour and look at transactive memory processes. In any long-term relationship, a team work environment, or a group, people typically develop a group/transactive memory. Such memory is a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information. From the past twenty years or so, post the advent of the Internet, our reliance on such stores for information has become threatening. Relying on our computers and the information stored on the Internet depends on several of the same transactive memory processes that underlie social information-sharing in general. We, after all, are in a never ending long-term relationship with the Internet.

In a series of studies conducted by Sparrow, Liu and Wegner 2011, the Google Effect was explored from different angles. In their results, it was seen that people share information easily because they rapidly think of computers when they find they need knowledge, thereby showing how our reliance on the Internet is similar to transactive memory processes. This social form of information storage is also reflected in their findings, which state that people forget items they think will be available externally and remember items they think will not be available. For instance, if you know everyone in your family is going to that one birthday or an anniversary, you rely on them to remind you about it. Whereas, if you are away from home, you might set reminders about the same birthday or anniversary as there is no bankable external source to remind you. Transactive memory is also evident when people remember where an item has been stored better than the identities of the item itself. These results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology and we have become dependent on them to a large degree. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend.

Other researches in this area also throw caution to the wind, and the picture that emerges is troubling. People who read text studded with links, show a comprehension level less than those who read words printed on pages. People who watch busy multimedia presentations in various settings remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate, relaxed, and thereby focused manner. Studies also show that people who are continually distracted by emails, updates, and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate without these constant distractors in today’s life. Maybe, that’s why it’s prudent to keep the phone and gadgets aside when working on an important task. Or even keep the internet connectivity off!

The common thread in these findings is the division of attention which implies the harm it does to the richness of our thoughts and our memories as it hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. Only when we pay close attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory”, writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts and thinking critically.

How people react to the aspects related to this phenomenon? A 2015 study by Kaspersky digital reported some interesting statistics. 34% of European consumers admitted that their smartphone is their memory, as it contains almost everything they need to know or recall. Their latest study takes this exploration further, with a third (32%) of people admitting their digital devices are like an extension of their brain. They also found that over three-quarters (79%) of respondents are more reliant on their digital devices now for accessing information than they were over five years ago. What do people think of their reliance on the Internet? For two-thirds (64%) of the sample studied, using a connected device to ‘remember’ information means they can concentrate on something else instead. For them a digital device allows people to choose when and how they deal with information. However, when the study looked at age-related reactions, they found that 49% of younger respondents (under the age of 35) worry about their reliance on devices, whereas only 35% of over 35s hold the same fears, being more excited about the future of technology evolution.

Why do we choose to decode this phenomenon? Because as with many other phenomena before this, a very juicy picture of the Google Effect has been painted with no substantial remedial measures in sight. Many studies suggest that the effects can be countered in the same way as Internet addiction is tackled. The irony is that if one searches for measures to avoid Internet related harm to memory, a basic google search will tell you how to avoid malicious websites and pop-ups to protect your computer and its memory system. In the end, it’s up to people as to how they put technology to use. Or how we, the people, let the technology use us.

Priya Baid