Marshall McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan in 1967. Credit: Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada,

Were he still alive, today would have been the 100th birthday of Marshall McLuhan. While most Canadians have heard of him, and might even be able to rattle off his famous, cryptic aphorism, “the medium is the message,” a complete understanding of his theories is beyond most, including some who think they know. Still, his general point – that the electronic media have fundamentally altered our consciousness – seems intuitive enough. On my smart phone, I have instant access to access to all human knowledge via the Internet. It’s an amazing ability, but like many people, I sometimes worry that having this super power has made me less likely to retain information myself. Is my own memory in danger of being made obsolete by Google?

I was thinking about this while reading through a study published in Science last week by Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. In it, they describe how they gave test subjects a list of trivia facts to type into a computer. Half of the subjects were told that the information would be saved, the other half that it would be deleted, but all were told to try and remember the facts. Not surprisingly, people who thought they had saved the information showed worse recall than those who didn’t. In another experiment, a group of subjects were told that each fact had been saved in one of five folders with generic names like “FACTS” or “DATA”. Despite the non-memorable folder names, subjects proved better able to remember where they had saved each fact than the fact itself.

Lastly, the team used a variation of the classic Stroop test to measure how we think about the Internet in relation to information. After being given a question (e.g., “Are an ostrich’s eyes bigger than its brain?”) the subject would be shown the name of a popular brand (“Target” or “Nike”) written in a particular colour, and then be asked to name the colour. Words like “Yahoo” or “Google” showed a significantly delayed response, indicating that the subjects had the Internet on the brain.

So is the Internet making us forgetful? Not necessarily. “People have always kept information in external memory systems, whether it’s other people or reference books or whatever,” says Sparrow. In one of Plato’s dialogues, a character famously decries the invention of the alphabet, saying it will produce forgetfulness because people “will not practice their memory.” Yet few would argue that the existence of writing has caused our memories to atrophy. In fact, the ability to store information outside our own bodies has enabled the development of science, medicine, and modern society. “The Internet is just an interface with a lot of other external memory systems,” says Sparrow.

What we have evolved as a species is a sophisticated system for sorting out which facts we need to have handy, which ones we can afford to look up later, and where to find them. This system is personal and unique. For example, most of us wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how far it is from Toronto to Montreal, but if you travel frequently between those two cities, you might know that it’s 504 km (I Googled it.)

The point is that yes, maybe we reach for the reach the Internet a quickly when it comes to retreiving information. But so what? It’s better than not knowing at all.

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