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One of the best parts of having a smartphone is the fact that you have all this information at your fingertips. If I want to find out who designed the original Coke bottle, I can find it. If I’m having trouble in class with a particular topic, I can look up plenty of youtube videos from teachers around the world teaching the same thing. With the advent of smartphones and the internet, we don’t necessarily have to keep all of these facts in our heads all the time, but is that such a good thing? Some scientists and psychologists are worried about what smartphones are doing to our memories.
So, what is the internet doing to our memories? Since ancient times, people have relied on each other to remember things in a sort of social group teamwork (Scientific American). Whenever we learn something, we tell others about it so that they can share information. We also tend to specialize our memory as well (we all have that one friend who can somehow remember every movie that came out in the past year). Before the time of computers, this network of people and memories have allowed for us to be able to efficiently build up a repertoire of memories in one group. This kind of memory retainment is called transactive memory. With smartphones, it’s as if we’ve added an extraordinarily intelligent member to our group that we can rely on for information.
Recently, a study was done at Columbia University to delve into transactive memories and technology (Slate). In the experiment, Betsy Sparrow had subjects type different facts into a computer. Some of the subjects were explicitly told that the sentences they typed would be erased, and the other subjects were told that the facts would be saved on the computer after they finished. After the fact, the subjects that were told that the sentences were going to be erased were able to better specifically recall the facts than the subjects who were told that the computer was going to save them. In essence, when we feel like we can rely on technology to remember something for us, we tend not to put as much effort into remembering it for ourselves. It’s not necessarily bad that we rely on machines to help us remember, as we have been making a knowledge network for a long time with other people (we just now have an extremely powerful computer buddy in our group).
What we may have to worry about, however, is how we rely on machines for memory. According to Slate, what is good about transactive memory between people is that we also are able to realize our strengths and weaknesses in regard to our memories. While I can readily rely on my friend for movie knowledge, I may not be able to rely on them for travel directions around town. However, for machines, we tend to think of them like flawless scribes. We don’t tend to acknowledge the kinds of biases and faults the internet might have. Different search engines like Google organize results for information queries in a certain way such that some results take priority over others (which does make sense).
I’m not sure where I would be without technology, especially the smartphone. I can search and learn any fact I want to learn about, but is that so good? Some psychologists worry that our phones and the internet are warping our memories and making us worse off. Others argue that we are simply adapting to our new tools and using the same kind of reliance that we have been using for years, just with other people. This would mean that it isn’t necessarily bad that we’re using our phones for memory—it’s just human nature. What we may have to look out for though is understanding that our phones are not completely flawless, and they have their own faults and biases, even if they aren’t as transparent as another person’s biases in knowledge. Given that we are constantly evolving, including our evolving brains, we may still be better off with our new technology, though we also have to proceed with an amount of caution.