Is Google Replacing Memory?

“How old is Tony Bennett anyway?”

We were sitting in a condo on a ski hill with friends, counting down to the new year, when the ageless Mr. Bennett appeared on TV. One of us wondered aloud about just how many new years he has personally ushered in.

In days gone by, the question would have just hung there. It would probably have  filled up a few minutes of conversation. If someone felt strongly about the topic, it might even have started an argument. But, at the end of it all, there would be no definitive answer -- just opinions.

This was the way of the world. We were restricted to the knowledge we could each jam in our noggin. And if our opinion conflicted with another’s, all we could do is argue.

In “Annie Hall, “ Woody Allen set up the scenario perfectly. He and Diane Keaton are in a movie line. Behind them, an intellectual blowhard is in mid-stream pontification on everything from Fellini’s movie-making to the media theories of Marshall McLuhan. Finally, Allen can take it no more and asks the camera “What do you do with a guy like this?” The “guy” takes exception and explains to Allen that he teaches a course on McLuhan at Columbia. But Allen has the last laugh -- literally. He pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out from behind an in-lobby display, and McLuhan proceeds to intellectually eviscerate the Columbia professor. 



“If only life was actually like this,” Allen sighs to the camera.

Well, now, some 35 years later, it may be. While we may not have Marshall McLuhan in our back pocket, we do have Google. And for many questions, Google is the final arbitrator. Opinions quickly give way to facts (or, at least, information presented as fact online.) No longer do we have to wonder how old Tony Bennett really is. Now, we can quickly check the answer. 

If you stop to think about this, it has massive implications.

In 1985, Daniel Wegner proposed something along these lines when he introduced the hypothetical concept of transactive memory. An extension of “group mind,” transactive memory posits a type of meta-memory, where our own capacity to remember things is enhanced in a group by knowing whom in that group knows more than we do about any given topic.

In its simplest form, transactive memory is my knowing that my wife tends to remember birthdays and anniversaries -- but I remember when to pay our utility bills. It’s not that I can’t remember birthdays and my wife can’t remember to pay bills, it’s just that we don’t have to go to the extra effort if we know our partner has it covered.

If Wegner’s hypothesis is correct (and it certainly passes my own smell test) then transactive memory has been around for a long time. In fact, many believe that the acquisition of language, which allowed for the development of transactive memory and other aids to survival in our ancestral tribes, was probably responsible for the “Great Leap Forward” in our own evolution.

But with ubiquitous access to online knowledge, transactive memory takes on a whole new spin. Now, not only don’t we have to remember as much as we used to, we don’t even have to remember who else might have the answer. For much of what we need to know, it’s as simple as searching for it on our smartphone.  Our search engine of choice does the heavy lifting for us. 

This throws a massive technological wrench into the machinery of our own memories. Much of what it was originally intended for may no longer be required.  And this begs the question, “If we no longer have to remember stuff we can just look up online, what will we use our memory for?”

Something to ponder at the beginning of a new year.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born Aug. 3, 1926, making him 85.

8 comments about "Is Google Replacing Memory?".
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  1. Lester Bryant iii from Bryant Writing & Consulting, January 5, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.

    Perhaps, much like using dictionaries in grade school helped us to learn and remember new information, Google is doing the same? Each time we "google" and learn something new aren't we actually adding to our knowledge base in some way? For me, the suggestion that Google may be replacing memory suggests that everything we learn is pernamently attached to memory and we of course know that it is not. Things like Tony Bennett's birthday are fun party facts but, I really don't need it taking up space better meant for information more crucial and necessary to my daily life. I've always thought it better to know where to find out what you need to know is far more important than trying to retain a head full of info. that was useless a second after you learned the stuff.

  2. Robert Kahns from MarineMax, January 5, 2012 at 12:01 p.m.

    I don't think Google is replacing memory, conversely it may actually be adding to our individual memory & knowledge base. But this may be up to the end user & how we use the information we retrieve.
    While 3 years from now I may not remember that Tony Bennett is now 88 based a Google search done 3 years prior (and I'll search again!), I very well may remember other poignant information retrieved from 'non-trivial' searches.
    I think Google's affect on memory is much more aligned with the intent of the searcher, whether it is trivial or knowledge based.

  3. Rick Short from INDIUM CORPORATION, January 5, 2012 at 12:09 p.m.

    Excellent topic and discussion.

    I have to ask, WHY do you state, "This throws a massive technological wrench into the machinery of our own memories", inferring something negative???

    Might this be a totally LIBERATING situation?

    Consider an analogous condition: In the past, students sat, heads down, performing calculations at their desks. They focused on the mathematical gymnastics more than the REASON why they were doing them. We are all familiar with the question, "WHY do I need to know this?". Calculators enabled the education process to emphasize WHY the math matters and what the information means. While it is helpful to know how to attain the first derivative of a function, understanding the meaning of the concept and "the reason why" is the whole point!

    So, maybe "memory" isn't as much an issue as freeing our minds for other activities. Or, maybe we invoke a higher level activity for our memory functions.

    To me this is the opposite of a "monkey wrench". Enhanced tools ENABLE humans to see more, dream more, do more, dare more, achieve more, and be more. Perhaps THIS is where we direct our resources - to getting people to realize their higher potential versus using technology to babysit our kids or solve arguments at parties.

    Thank you for the intriguing topic.

  4. Myron Rosmarin from Rosmarin Search Marketing, Inc., January 5, 2012 at 12:11 p.m.

    I intended to post a comment that were already well described by Robert Kahns and Lester Bryant. I agree with them both. Anytime we seek new information, we are learning both what we intended to learn about plus the extra tidbits of information we pick up along the way. It's curious that we have to defend immediate access to information as if it's a bad thing. I'm quite confident that the combination of Google (the finder of all things), Wikipedia (the knower of all things) and our web-enabled handheld devices are making us smarter, not the other way around.

  5. Juliann Grant from Telesian Technology, January 5, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.

    I can see Robert and Lester's point - and yes we do add to our information database in our minds every time we google. But, also, I feel that I do file less away in my head due to the availability of information. Just this morning I googled when the Epiphany was because I forgot it was 12 days after Christmas - a fact that should be etched in my Catholic mind. I used to know phone numbers off the top of my head, now I have to focus on memorizing them if I want to. But beyond myself, I'm wondering if we will see more evidence of this in younger generations who completely rely upon Google for information. Heck, they don't even have to crack an encyclopedia anymore or scribe information to any length. I don't think they will be great Trivial Pursuit partners, but they may be able to do scrabble due to "words with friends".

    I'm being sarcastic (in case that's not clear), but I do think that my focus on remembering information has shifted with all this technology at my fingertips.

  6. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, January 5, 2012 at 12:18 p.m.

    Agreed..great comments. And to be honest..I left the question dangling as comment bait. I suspect that there may be more good here than bad. For example, I find now that all I have to do is keep in mind broad concepts (ie Wegner's hypothesis on transactive memory - which I heard about some years ago) and if the concept fits, I can use Google to reacquaint myself with the details. I can then use the example and tie it in with the broader concept I'm trying to get across with more confidence, because the web can fill in the "gaps" in my own knowledge. If you subscribe to a more Kurzweillian view of the future..this coupling with technology may be our next "Great Leap forward!"

  7. Anna Barbosa from Pivotal Marketing Media, January 5, 2012 at 12:26 p.m.

    So true. But it isn't only Google, it is also our smart phones and GPS. I don't even know the phone number of my husbands cell because it is on speed dial. And GPS? I just follow instructions and barely notice the landmarks.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 5, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.

    Knowing the actual age of Tony Bennett is not the issue, especially for those born in a more recent decade. The same reason it is important to know when event happens in history. Perspective of information and history and how our future is dependent upon we know based on history (e.g. Ken Burns series on Prohibition). The ability to find out information helps us to learn as in google and that's a plus to no end. What we haven't yet found is the balance. A dictionary didn't prevent one to learn, repetitively, to spell or read, but an non-replaceable tool.

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