Downloading your brain is nothing new

Brain image

Not much space in here!

Yet another reason why Google is a bit sinister – this week it’s being blamed for modern man’s rubbish memory. According to research in the journal Science, we’re relying on computers to be a permanent extension of our brains – Google remembers so we don’t have to.

But is this really a portentous development warning us of the perils of technology? Surely anyone who’s ever used a textbook is doing exactly the same thing. And books certainly didn’t herald the decline of the human race. 

In fact you could easily argue that mankind’s success is built on our ability to download our brains – passing on our knowledge so that each generation can benefit from the discoveries of those who have gone before. Google is just the next step in a process that started with language and cave paintings.

Twenty years ago I wasn’t using the internet, but I remember exactly how my family managed – we looked things up in reference books. In fact Christmas held a special appeal for me because it was the only time of the year our access to Encyclopaedia Britannica was blocked (by the Christmas tree), so my mum and dad weren’t permanently jumping up from the dinner table to look something else up.

We had a raft of other reference books – Halliwell’s for movies, at least four different dictionaries, companions to various types of literature… you can imagine what fun we had (!!). But whatever the method the aim was the same – a store of easily accessible knowledge (except at Christmas) for when you just couldn’t remember.

I don’t think this week’s news is anything to worry about. It’s just yet more evidence of how adaptable we are, and how we automatically try to make the best use of our brains. I really don’t need to make the effort to remember who played Travis in Clueless – I can look it up on IMDB.

As the researchers say, ‘the Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.’ It’s interesting that people tend to think of computers when faced with difficult questions, but surely it’s not surprising. The internet is the ultimate encyclopaedia – so much so that people who aren’t able to use it are at a serious disadvantage, in much the same way that someone who can’t read would be.

Humans have spent thousands of years finding better and better ways to categorise, store and pass on their knowledge and experiences. You could almost say that every human endeavour fits into this category in some way or another. The technology advances but the need remains the same – we’re curious animals and we always want to know more. If the internet helps us scratch that itch then it gets my vote.

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