Some research has suggested that people are remembering less and less, relying on search engines to replace the store of knowledge in their heads. It is no longer necessary to know what something is but where to find it. Some revel in the new found freedom of this digitally-induced amnesia while others express fears that it will reduce our ability to make profound discoveries through fact based inquiry which has more to do with asking questions than getting answers..
There have always been aides to memory. Even memory itself — that peculiar function of the hippocampus that manages recall from the far flung reaches of the brain — can be trained to help itself when nature fails to provide the necessary power of recall. Cicero, for example, devised a technique that one might call “the rooms of one’s house.” When preparing for a speech in the Roman Senate — many of which were delivered for hours without notes or repetition – he would imagine himself walking through the rooms of a mansion. In each room he would place an object and this object would trigger a memory or idea that was central to his speech at that moment. As he moved from room to room his dissertation would unfold, logically and powerfully, filled with quotes and facts. I suppose it all worked well unless he took a wrong turn.
Books, of course, have always served as a secondary memory. Personal libraries with pages dog-eared or marked with bits of paper to keep our place, could be called on to strengthen or confirm the facts we kept in our head. But in both cases — memory tricks and reference books — there remained a need to keep those facts present in the mind, at least to some extent.
No longer. With Google and smart phones at hand, one doesn’t need to know much of anything to look and feel like a genius. If you can master the rather simple task of Boolean logic strings, you can generally find anything in a few seconds. I suppose, in future, the label of genius will mostly go to those with agile thumbs and a superior grasp of word association.
I’m not averse myself to relying on Professor Google — when a matter is in dispute or when memory fails to provide the critical detail to make the point. But I do find that the willingness to search for every quote, to fact check every moment of conversation has a profoundly dampening effect on the free flow of ideas. While facts are important and some check on outright lying is undoubtedly valuable, sometimes I think this ready access to a cloud of knowledge — a cloud that often obscures more than it reveals and contains its own fast range of inaccuracies (Wikapedia is notorious for being wrong in certain fields) — diminishes the human experience.
But that’s because I’m an old fart with an endless supply of useless trivia that all too often spills out in a pointless torrent. Or at least that’s what my wife says.
But that’s ten minutes.