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Does anyone know anything any more? The ease with which one can look up facts on a phone at any time is one of the wonders of the modern age. But are we becoming too reliant on it? A new study indicates, at least, that there might be a snowball effect to such reliance. The more we depend on #Google for information recall, it suggests, the more we will do so in the future. In a paper for the journal Memory, psychologists Benjamin Storm, Sean Stone, and Aaron Benjamin describe how they first asked people a set of difficult trivia questions. One group was told to use Google to answer them; the other group attempted to answer them from memory. Next, all the subjects were given a set of easier trivial questions, and offered the choice of using Google or not. It turned out that the ones who had previously used Google were more likely to choose to use it again this time – even if it was made significantly more inconvenient to do so. Thus, it seems, “relying on the internet to access information makes one more likely to rely on the internet to access other information”. It would be unreasonable to extrapolate from these results the conclusion that, over time, no one will bother remembering anything at all. But such evidence may still come as grist to the mill of those who have long been asking “Is Google making us stupid?” The answer, of course, depends among other things on what “stupid” means. If we all come to increase our “cognitive offloading” onto the internet, that may simply portend a cultural shift in the ways in which we value mental abilities. Since recall of facts is now so easy and quick via the internet, we may just become less impressed by factual knowledge, and more impressed by understanding and creativity. The problem with this, as the researchers themselves note, is that the ability to draw creative connections between facts may depend on having internalized them already as knowledge, so that they are instantly available to the reasoning mind. Until we have direct brain connections to the internet, it is still far more laborious to look everything up about a topic one wants to think about. Plus, to look something up, one needs to know already what it is one wants to know.

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