The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia: How We Use Machines to Remember

The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia

 

The Google effect and digital amnesia both represent our tendency to forget information that can be easily found online or stored digitally. The following article will explain these effects, and how you can use your understanding of them to strategically choose when to remember things, and when to forget them.

 

The Google Effect and Digital Amnesia

The Google effect is our tendency to forget information that we know how to find online.

Digital amnesia is our tendency to forget information that we’ve stored on a digital device.

Both of these phenomena are similar, in that we forget, either intentionally or unintentionally, information that is available to us digitally. The main reason for this is that we are generally better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it, than we are at remembering the information itself.

One study, for example, showed this by examining doctoral dissertations at MIT, and specifically how the way students cite sources changed over the years. The researchers found that once search engines and digital storage became more commonplace, students started relying more on their ability to remember where relevant information appears in scientific literature, rather than on their ability to remember the information itself.

Essentially, this means that we rely on digital devices and the internet as a form of external memory-storage, and as part of our transactive memory. This type of memory is frequently used in groups and relationships, and involves individuals in a group relying on one another to remember key information in certain areas. It’s beneficial because it allows each person in the group to dedicate less cognitive resources to remembering all the shared information, since they know that someone else in the group has that information stored for them.

Note: that there are some philosophical arguments against the idea that the internet is a part of our transactive memory. These arguments center around the fact that transactive memory is a feature of a distributed cognitive system between individuals, while the internet is only as a tool which is used to access information. However, this distinction isn’t crucial, as long as you understand the overall idea behind these phenomena.

 

Why understanding these effects is important

There is nothing wrong with intentionally forgetting things that you know your devices can remember for you. We have so many things to remember, that an external memory-storage unit is of great help. Password managers are a good example of this, since they allow us to reliably remember a large number of strong passwords, something that we would otherwise struggle to do effectively.

There are other benefits to strategically forgetting things. Notably, most of us have no way of remembering all the valuable information that we encounter everyday. Because of this, relying on our ability to find information rather than on our ability to store it, frees up cognitive resources necessary for processing of all of this information, which allows us to utilize it more effectively.

However, relying on devices to remember for you can be an issue if you need to remember the information directly. One study, for example, found that while using the internet allows us to quickly discover new information, our ability to recall this information is worse than when we discover it through other sources, such as books. While this isn’t a problem in cases where you just need to know where to find the information, it can be an issue in cases where you need to recall the information directly, such as:

  • Information that you need to have readily available when you don’t have access to digital storage or to a search engine.
  • Information that is crucial to remember since you cannot afford to rely only on a digital backup for some reason.
  • Information that you want to internalize and remember in the long-term.

Therefore, the important thing is to be aware of these phenomena, and to have them under your control. That is, the decision to forget certain pieces of information because you know you can retrieve them digitally, is one that you should be making consciously and selectively.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The Google effect is our tendency to forget information that we know how to find online.
  • Digital amnesia is our tendency to forget information that we stored on a digital device.
  • These phenomena are attributed to the fact that we often treat digital devices and the internet as a sort of external memory-storage, by making them a part of our transactive memory.
  • The primary reason why we do this is because we are generally better at remembering where information is stored and how to retrieve it, than we are at remembering the information itself.
  • Relying on digital devices to store information can be beneficial, since it frees up cognitive resources which are necessary for processing new information, and because this form of memory is generally efficient and reliable. However, the choice to do this should be conscious, since it can hinder us in cases where we need to remember key pieces of information directly.