From Humanist I was led to a good summary blog entry on Internet use and transactive memory. Transactive memory is a group or stored memory that we depend on instead of remember the information itself. We do this all the time (even before computers) when, for example, we depend on a cookbook for a recipe we have used before, but can’t be bothered to memorize. Given books like Carr’s The Shallows, there is debate about whether Google and the internet as transactive memory is making us stupider.
The real question is not whether offloading memory to other people or to things makes us stupid; humans do that all the time, and it shouldn’t be surprising that we do it with computers. The issues, I think, are 1) whether we do this consciously, as a matter of choice rather than as an accident; and 2) what we seek to gain by doing so.
This entry was sparked by recent news of research results on this subject by Dr. Sparrow and others (see YouTube interview). You can see Carr’s blog entry at Rough Type: Nicholas Carr’s Blog: Minds like sieves. Carr seems to think this reinforces his view that we are shifting to depending too much on technological transactive memory. Sparrow is more careful about drawing conclusions. We may have always depended on transactive memory, but are focusing now on one type – the internet. In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates focused on writing as the technology tempting us to forget.
Of course, forgetting costs so we may not have to worry if we don’t want to pay.