Stephen Logan

Is Google Really Making Us Forgetful?

20th Jul 2011 News, Industry News 3 minutes to read

It was reported earlier in the week that psychologists at Columbia University had found that using Google (and search engines in general) is impacting the way we remember information [see: How Google Impacts Our Memory | Search Engine Watch]. As searchers we have become adept at remembering sources, but it appears we’re less successful when it comes to storing the things we are actually looking for.

This could of course be quite a damaging study, particularly as more people across the world get online and inevitably gravitate towards search engines. However, by and large, I’m reasonably sure it will be forgotten.

Woeful jokes aside, it has raised the serious issue of how the Internet impacts our behaviour and day-to-day life. There’s little doubting that behaviours and even language has changed since Google, Facebook, Ebay and the like came along. The way we shop, communicate, get news and market ourselves has evolved quicker than at any time in history.

Whilst it is difficult to argue with the findings of this investigation (they are after all highly qualified, experienced psychologists working in one of America’s leading universities and using a fair amount of evidence), there are other ways of measuring the impact of search engines. For instance, whilst information may not always stick, it is difficult to argue that it is far more accessible.

I can only speculate, but I’m reasonably sure that most inquisitive types have been able to source answers to queries much quicker thanks to the likes of Google, Bing and even specialist sites like Wolfram Alpha. Wikipedia can be a hindrance as much as a help; whilst I wouldn’t suggest using it as a source for a university dissertation, for a little nugget of information, it’s difficult to equal.

The availability of news and the instantaneous nature in which it is delivered has also helped to inform, rather than encourage forgetfulness or ignorance. Whilst we may now be more influenced by trends, quickly moving from one story to another, the real-time cohesiveness between Twitter and search has strengthened the function of both.

For instance, yesterday Twitter was buzzing with the #hackgate scandal. Every comment from the Parliamentary Select Committee was scrutinised and re-tweeted for the world to see. Of course proceedings would later be bought to a shuddering halt by Rupert Murdoch being forced to eat ‘Humble Pie’ (pun stolen from the front page of every newspapaer currently in circulation). But for me this signified why having a synergy between information, communication and distribution across multiple ‘search’ channels is so vital.

Whoever you followed, it was impossible not to see a mention of the attack. This was relayed within minutes. Hot on the heels of finding out about the incident, the transgressor had already been named as Jonnie Marbles. Then of course it emerged that he had tweeted about his intentions and that his girlfriend had dumped him – again, all through Twitter.

Now, that’s all well and good. But then comes the role of search engines. I’m intrigued, I want to find out more. So the next logical step is to fire up Google and search for news reports or videos of the incident. Again, within half an hour, there are clips being shared, blogs posted and online news outlets reporting the events.

This is a lot of information for somebody to digest. So perhaps forgetfulness is simply a by-product of volume. Search engines allow you to query anything that you see, hear or read about. If I don’t know what a word means, who a person is or when an event happened, I can find out in an instant. Invariably, just as when reading a book at school, not all of that knowledge will sink in forever. However, I know where I can retrieve it if needs be.

Perhaps it is this level of access that inspires wanton carelessness when it comes to storing information. Maybe we are all just a little lazy? There is certainly truth in this, but I’m not entirely sure that blaming Google is the answer. Trivial knowledge may perish, but awareness of real-time events is certainly increased as is information required in the here-and-now (even if it is never used again).

I personally have learnt more than I’ve forgotten thanks to search engines; but there again I don’t speak for everybody. So if you have an opinion on this research and the role search engines play, make sure you leave a comment below.

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