Saturday, November 24, 2012

The age of internet explorers (NaBloPoMo Day 24)

NaBloPoMo November 2012
One post every day in November

Technology has spoiled us rotten. It has made us slack.

In recent years, I have discovered within myself an increasing tendency to rely on technology even in situations where there is no technology to be relied upon.

For example, when we misplace our phones, we routinely call ourselves and allow the ringtone to lead us back to it. The trouble is that I expect this method to serve at all times. So when I can't find the TV remote or the newspaper or a set of keys, I am frustrated because the manufacturers of TV remotes and keys, and the publishers of newspapers don't equip them with ringtones or GPS technology to enable us to trace them.

Facebook has spoiled me too. Now whenever I like something, I wish there was a LIKE to click upon, to save me the trouble of committing myself to an actual verbal statement.

And when I make a mistake, I long to Undo it or go back to a previously saved version of things, when everything was to my satisfaction.

Who can remember telephone numbers anymore? And when was the last time you did any exploring outside the Internet?

This excessive reliance on the Internet, and I am supremely guilty of it (I use Google as a verb), is probably messing the neurons in our brain, causing parts of it to blink and shut down because they don’t feel so needed anymore.

We no longer remember information. We just don’t feel the need to, when any information in the world is just a Google-search away.

In a series of experiments, Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her collaborators, Daniel M Wegner of Harvard and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that people are more likely to remember things they do not think they can find using a computer and vice versa.

When I was in college, we didn’t have the Internet. So when we needed material for a presentation or paper, we would troop to our massive library and spend hours reading, making notes, trying to remember, forging connections between what we were reading right then and things that we remembered from a previous reading. I still remember how I gaped, with mouth open, no less, when I saw all the volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica ranged together in a row. The collective information within those pages seemed to be limitless.

When we participated in quizzes, we relied on extensive reading and our memory to help us sail through. Answers were not a click away.

Today, all we need to do is put in a string for a Google search, then copy-paste and save. If we don’t like the information we get, we can always revise the search string and try again. The next time we need the same information, we might remember the names of the websites and blogs where that information will be available. Or else we might remember the name of the file in which we have saved it, and the folder where the file resides. But the actual information itself? Now you’re asking for too much. We have Google to bail us out, don’t we?

What happens when a particular Google search takes us to a site with incorrect information? Let’s not think about that.

The advent of cellphones with their ability to store telephone numbers had a similar effect on our ability to remember numbers. There was a time when the average office employee could rattle off at least 20 telephone numbers, without thinking.

Today, we’re lucky if we can remember one number, and that our own. Why make the effort to remember, when we’ve got 100 numbers on Speed Dial, and our phones can ‘remember’ 500? I was forced to do a fair bit of recalling last year, when I lost the display on my phone suddenly. Most of the numbers had been saved on the phone itself, so moving the SIM card to another phone did not help. I had to dredge through my memory to retrieve almost forgotten numbers of friends and family members. It was a difficult task, and I was grateful for what memory threw up.

But what if memory hadn’t obliged? Just as muscles atrophy when not used regularly, so do synapses in the brain. Do we want our brains to dispose of our mental filing cabinets? What might happen to our memory banks then? Of course, memory banks themselves are quite suspect as those who are being cross-questioned in the witness box will be quick to tell you. As Austin O'Malley said, “Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.”

Of course, it is entirely possible that we are worrying for nothing. Over the centuries, numerous people have worried that our memories might be adversely affected by inventions such as the gramophone, the printing press etc. Even the venerable Socrates had feared that the written word would cause humankind to lose its memories.

It’s certainly nice to have Google around. After all, it would be impossible to remember everything there is to know in an ever-changing world. But let’s not become too dependent on it. What would happen if the Internet were to vanish one day?

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