Google affects your memory

Can you remember why you did something online?Rupert Murdoch faces the British Parliament today in a bid to save his reputation. But probably, some of his answers will be of the “I don’t remember” variety. Indeed, the police officers who were quizzed a week ago seemed to have several memory lapses. Amazing how your memory disappears just when you need it…! I blame Google. Well, why not? They get the blame for many other things – like allowing us access to undesirable content, for making too much profit or for favouring big brands in their search results. You name it, people have tried blaming Google for it.

As you may have noticed, this blog hasn’t been updated for a week – and that too is Google’s fault. Well, they kept showing me stuff that I wanted or needed to look at. Goodness, there’s so much interesting stuff out there, I didn’t have time to do anything else other than read it. Honestly, the searches I was making on Google kept me really busy all week. They were – of course – necessary and important searches. The truth is, my server faced a major glitch which involved lots of technical support from my very supportive and helpful hosting company. That put me several days behind and required me to read lots of technical information to get things working the way I wanted.

But what if it happens again? Well, I haven’t needed to learn what to do to put it right. I just know that in my web browser’s “bookmarks” there are links to the support service of my hosting company and all the articles which helped me put it right. In other words I do not need to remember the information – Google has it stored for me. Google means we don’t have to make the effort to remember things any more – so we don’t.

New research confirms the impact of Google on the way our brains work. Psychologists are now suggesting that we have something called “transactive memory” – memory which is not actually stored in our brains, but in some other place. We know it is there and we can use technology to recall it. In the past, before online technology provided this capability we were able to memorise things ourselves – now we don’t need to make that effort.

This is actually nothing new – in spite of the latest study. I wrote about this phenomenon in an article in The Daily Telegraph four years ago. All kinds of modern technology are combining to mean we no longer need to make as much mental effort to remember things as we did in the past. Our memory system is being extended beyond our brain to the entire web. Parts of my memory are on servers across the planet – much like yours.

The problem for businesses is that most are not utilising the memory aspects of the Internet for their customers. For instance, I had an email from someone who receives my weekly newsletter saying “is there a central place where you list all the items you recommend in your newsletter?” He went on: “I know you mentioned something useful a while back but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was”. If only I had the listing he wants (I’m building it today, of course). In other words, if we can anticipate the way people want to use our websites to remember things we can provide the relevant recall mechanisms to help them.

As more and more people depend upon “transactive memory” businesses are going to have to respond with ways in which their website can support that. Perhaps if News International had thought of this, they’d have something in place to help the Murdoch’s recall things more easily today…!

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