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Moving memory online

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Date posted: December 13, 2012

Are we “outsourcing memory?” Are we using modern technology to augment human capacity and “outsourcing personal knowledge acquisition to search engines” as noted in a recent KnowledgeWorks report? If so, what are the implications for a generation of students whose research skills are, as the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds, being conditioned by search engines?

“Since the advent of search engines, we are reorganizing the way we remember things,” says Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow. “Our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. We remember less through knowing information itself than by knowing where the information can be found.” The result is that “we forget things we are confident we can find on the Internet. We are more likely to remember things we think are not available online. And we are better able to remember where to find something on the Internet than we are at remembering the information itself.”

One hundred years ago, the human brain was thought of as a muscle that could be developed through “exercise” and the store of human knowledge was confined to physical spaces, like books, libraries, and schools. Memorizing was important to developing the brain, but also because information wasn’t easily available at the moment you might need it.

Today, virtually the entire warehouse of human knowledge is available anytime, anywhere, to anyone with a computer or smart phone and a network connection. It is only natural that humans would adapt to this new environment. If facts are at your fingertips, there is less incentive to store them in your memory. It is more efficient to free memory for larger tasks and look up the details as needed.

But what happens when the amount of information becomes too large to manage? Do we have the ability and skills to find, sort, manage, evaluate, and use the information we need? Are we able to figure out how to use that information to solve problems or create new and innovative products?

That’s a challenge we’re already facing yet, according to a Digital Universe report, “[d]uring the next eight years, the amount of digital data produced will exceed 40 zettabytes, which is the equivalent of 5,200 GB of data for every man, woman and child on Earth.” By comparison, my laptop hard drive can store just over 100 GB of data.

Not all of those 40 zettabytes is useful data—a large chunk is machines talking to machines—but human knowledge is expanding a breakneck speeds. How do we sift through this enormous pile of data (“equivalent to 57 times the amount of all the grains of sand on all the beaches on earth”) efficiently and effectively? Not very well, if the teachers interviewed by Pew are right.

Pew researchers interviewed Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers about their students’ research skills. Although educators saw many advantages and benefits in today’s technology, they also identified some troubling weaknesses in students’ research skills.

While students now have access to vast amounts of information, many teachers (83%) felt that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students” and (71%) “that today’s digital technologies discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research.” In fact, teachers felt that the “very nature of ‘research’ and what it means to ‘do research’” is changing. Now, research = Googling and has become a “fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.” In addition, students have difficulty assessing the reliability of the information they find online. Project Information Literacy has found similar deficits in college students’ research and information seeking skills.

The digital tools and connections we have at our disposal seductively tempt us to “outsource memory,” to do things as quickly and easily as possible, to choose constant novelty and simulation over deep thinking. Teaching media and information literacy is one way to amp up kids’ skills in finding, assessing, and using information.

Today’s students are as smart and capable as any in history. So the challenge is to create opportunities for them to slow down, dig deep, and think critically in school or at home. Turn a kid loose on a topic they’re interested in and passionate about and that happens almost naturally. We have to find ways to connect the curriculum to those interests and passions, and to the world outside school doors.

Otherwise, we’ll all be buried under the shifting sands of 40 zettabytes of data.

Photo credits: Microsoft Office Clip Art.