Memory is the mother of all wisdom. ⁓ Aeschylus

Blame it all on the movies. Or, more precisely, on a black-and-white movie called “Gaslight”. An actress’ name, which could not have been remembered, was looked up on the web and found immediately. A simple Google-based search landed the name in question and triggered a scientific study which supported a growing belief that people are using the Internet as a personal memory bank – the so-called Google effect. Betsy Sparrow, a Columbia University assistant professor, was the one looking for the name of the actress and the one who designed some clever experiments to check if the Internet is changing the way people memorize things nowadays. The results show that Google is taking away incentive for people to remember important facts, like names, dates and current events.

Dr Sparrow and her colleagues who participated in this research stated that the processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology. Just as we learn through transactive memory[1] – who knows what in our families and offices, we are learning what the computer “knows”. So instead of remembering things and facts, we are slowly remembering what is available from the computer, where’s that stored and how to find it and access it. In other words, how to retrieve it for our purposes. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer, with our smartphones, laptops, tablets, GPS navigation tools – growing into interconnected systems where we remember less of the actual information but know more where and how the information can be found.

Some psychologists wonder if our reliance on the Internet is making us dumber, while the others are worried about our brains being rewired. However, many agree that the Internet is changing our reading habits and thinking patterns, and not necessarily for the better. School teachers have already noticed the declining patience in their students for longer and serious reading. Attention span of many of us got well accustomed to email type of writing and length of reading, or even worse – a Twitter type of 140 characters long bare-bones message. Audience for a few hundred pages long novel or a serious subject book is shrinking rapidly. So the impact of the Google effect makes it harder not only to read but also to write a future masterpiece like War and Peace.

Albert Einstein once said: “Never memorize something that you can look up.” It seems that we’ve taken that advice too much to our heart. We are far better at remembering where to look for information using Google and other search engines, than at remembering the information itself.

The Google effect usually looks only on the negative impact of the phenomena itself. However, there are always two sides of the same coin. There are some less fortunate impacts and consequences of using the Internet and searching with the help of Google and other search engines, but there are many more positive effects which should not be disregarded.

The Internet is a virtual treasure trove of information. Any kind of information on almost any topic under the Sun is available there. Using Google or other tools we can find useful resources such as statistics, images, videos, news, comments, complete books and articles on almost any subject we might need. Those treasures are available to everyone who is willing to use it.

Besides its tremendous usefulness for any business possible, the Internet became one of the most valuable tools in education. It has an enormous amount of publications growing at an immense rate. It is a great source of reference for not only for educators and students, but also for anyone else who wants to learn about anything there is to learn. There are many full-text electronic libraries with scientific and other information freely available. It is a powerful tool that can be used in many aspects of our lives.

“Americans conducted 19.5 billion total core search queries in August (up 1 percent). Google Sites ranked first with 12.5 billion searches, followed by Yahoo! Sites with 3.6 billion and Microsoft Sites with 2.6 billion.” (September 2011, ComScore.com). Two billion people have access to Internet, which makes around 30% of the world population. An estimated number of searches done on the Internet in 2010 surpassed 150 billion.

To properly manage our lives and lives of our companies and organizations requires constant learning from all possible situations that we come across. So what can we learn from the Google effect and how can we implement it in our private and business lives?

There are at least three basic learning assets offered to us. Firstly, new generations that have grown up with the Internet and that are accustomed to using Google or similar, might be wired differently, or at least might look at the existing world complexities in a different way. For them, the most important are not the facts that they need to master and remember. Their strong side is the knowledge of ways for locating facts and information required for solving a particular problem. They are definitely not walking “Wikipedias”, but rather vivid users of such resources through different information and communication technologies aimed at problem resolution.

Secondly, today’s knowledge worker[2] is not too interested in collecting or organizing knowledge through different and difficult categorization schemes, or by spending his or her time capturing it. Knowledge collection, organization, preservation, and representation should be someone else’s job, or even better – it should be automatically done by some smart computer application or a background process without anyone’s intervention. For them, it is easily achievable, since Google is already doing it, and they know where and how to look for it and find it. So much for our extremely expensive knowledge management systems installed around many companies and organizations.

Finally, the new generation requires a very powerful but simple to use search and retrieval tool. Forget about Boolean logic and fancy taxonomies (although you might and should offer them), just put in place a full-text search facility with some fancy logic built in a fancy hidden algorithm, and everyone will be happy. Users, the knowledge workers, will be happy to use it, while their employers will be happy with the money saved on knowledge management systems, and the results achieved through different means and solutions to their current problems found.

Google is a global Rorschach test. We see in it what we want to see.


[1] A psychological hypothesis first proposed by Daniel Wegner in 1985, a transactive memory is a system through which groups collectively encode, store, and retrieve knowledge (Wikipedia).
[2] The term was first coined by Peter Drucker around 1959, as one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace (Wikipedia).

Dobrica Savić

DISCLAIMER: Any views or opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.