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The Internet Has Become the External Hard Drive for Our Memories

For millennia humans have relied on one another to recall the minutiae of our daily goings-on. Now we rely on “the cloud”—and it is changing how we perceive and remember the world around us
brain connected to various symbols



Owen Gildersleeve

In Brief

  • Remembering is traditionally a social enterprise. One person knows how to cook a turkey. A partner recalls how to fix the leak in the sink.
  • The Internet changes everything. With nearly ubiquitous online access, many people may first perform a smartphone search rather than calling a friend.
  • Being online all the time changes the subjective sense of self as borders between personal memories and information distributed across the Internet start to blur.

More In This Article

A couple receives an invitation to a birthday party. Through long experience, each intuitively knows what to do next. One partner figures out whether the dress code is formal or casual. The other makes a mental note of the time and place of the gathering so that they don't forget.

To some degree, we all delegate mental tasks to others. When presented with new information, we automatically distribute responsibility for remembering facts and concepts among members of our particular social group, recalling some things on our own and trusting others to remember the rest. When we can't remember the right name or how to fix a broken machine, we simply turn to someone else charged with being in the know. If your car is making a clunking noise, you call Ray, your gearhead friend. can't remember who starred in Casablanca? Marcie, the movie buff, knows. All types of knowledge, from the prosaic to the arcane, get apportioned among members of the group, whether the social unit in question is a married couple or the accounting department of a multinational corporation. In each case, we don't only know the information stored within our own minds; we also “know” what kinds of information other members of our social group are entrusted with remembering.

This divvying up avoids needless duplication of effort and serves to expand the memory capacity of the group as a whole. When we off-load responsibility for specific types of information to others, we free up cognitive resources that otherwise would have been used to remember this information; in exchange, we use some of these resources to increase our depth of knowledge in the areas for which we are responsible. When group members share responsibility for information, each member has access to knowledge both broader and deeper than could be obtained alone. Distributed memory binds the group together—any one individual is incomplete without being able to draw on the collective knowledge of the rest of the group. If separated, our birthday couple would be at a loss: one partner might wander the streets in top hat and tails while the other would arrive at the party on time wearing a sweatshirt.

This tendency to distribute information through what we call a “transactive memory system” developed in a world of face-to-face interactions, one in which the human mind represented the pinnacle of information storage. Yet this world no longer exists. With the development of the Internet, the human mind has been reduced from a powerhouse to an also-ran.

Inviting the iPhone's Siri into one's social group changes everything. Our work suggests that we treat the Internet much like we would a human transactive memory partner. We off-load memories to “the cloud” just as readily as we would to a family member, friend or lover. The Internet, in another sense, is also unlike a human transactive memory partner; it knows more and can produce this information more quickly. Almost all information today is readily available through a quick Internet search. It may be that the Internet is taking the place not just of other people as external sources of memory but also of our own cognitive faculties. The Internet may not only eliminate the need for a partner with whom to share information—it may also undermine the impulse to ensure that some important, just learned facts get inscribed into our biological memory banks. We call this the Google effect.

A New Partner
One recent experiment from our group demonstrated the extent to which the Internet is beginning to replace a friend or family member as a companion in sharing the daily tasks of remembering. Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, Jenny Liu, then at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and one of us (Wegner) asked participants to copy 40 memorable factoids into a computer (for example: “An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain”). Half of the people in the experiment were told that their work would be saved on the computer; the other half were told that it would be erased. Additionally, half of each group was asked to remember the information, whether or not it was being recorded by the computer.

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