Outsourcing Our Brains; or Thoughts on the Diminution of Natural Human Capacity through the Uncritical Adoption of Advanced Technology

Recently I gave a test in one of the English classes I teach at community college. Part of the test involved reading selections from five short pieces of literature and writing down the author and title to each. All five pieces were ones we had spent time on in class, and I chose very obvious passages from them to identify. The problem wasn’t identifying the passages. The problem was that not a single student had memorized the first and last names of five authors and the titles of their works.

I looked at what they had written in place of the complete name and title: a word or two, a last name with a question mark for the first name, names that started with the first letter but weren’t otherwise at all the same. And these were my best students. The ones who were struggling just left that page empty or drew emoticons in the answer blanks. What was going on here?

I realized that my students had learned exactly enough to type a search request into Google and most likely get the author and work they were looking for. They knew they couldn’t use the internet during the test; they are an honorable bunch with no intention of checking a cell phone under the table. So all I can conclude is that this is what memorization means now – the ability to find something on Google. We have outsourced our memories.

Well, so what? Socrates objected to the use of writing over two thousand years ago because he thought it would make us stupider and damage our memories. Of course there have been plenty of smart people since then. (In Socrates’ defense, while writing didn’t make us stupider, it did damage our memories.) I will, however, continue to write, because what I lose in my own mental capacity I gain in the volume and accuracy of the information I am able to deal with. People defend the internet – and cars, and forklifts, and food processors – in the same way: that these are worthwhile technological trade-offs. So my concern here is not a question of technology versus no technology. I love the written word, and I’m also very happy I don’t have to walk fifteen miles to work every day. But at what point do we outsource too much of our innate humanity to technology and end up damaging ourselves and our culture?

There are many signs that in our use of electronic technology we’ve reached the point of damage in the physical realm. Our bodies have suffered from our reliance on increasingly efficient technologies, whether we’re talking about developing an embolism from sitting on an airplane or in front of a computer game too long or just being a little overweight because we no longer walk anywhere. I contend that we are reaching that point in the intellectual realm, too – when to know something means to be able to type, click, skim, and forget.

Many people hold that it’s worthwhile outsourcing our memories to Google if it means we have so much more at our fingertips than we would otherwise. (Although do we even know how much we could carry around in our heads – we, who can’t memorize our own cell phone numbers because we have them on our phone and don’t need to? We may be giving up more than we think.) But I have two – actually three – caveats about outsourcing our memories.

First, are the technologies we are yielding our capacities to, and the organizations that control those technologies, really on our side? Do Google and Apple and Microsoft want us to be the best people we can be? Will they discontinue any technology that is found to be harmful, even if consumers still seem to want to buy it? Call me cynical, but I don’t think so. I’m not saying they are part of a vast conspiracy to rob us of our brains; they just want to make money and to grow. These corporations don’t need to conspire, after all, because we are all cooperating with them in this great outsourcing experiment. So no conspiracy — although I admit, in my darker hours, parallels with the Opium Wars come to mind.

Second, are these technologies we rely on so heavily even permanent? Can we count on our children and grandchildren being able to access our accumulated wisdom through the internet? People used to rely on their memories and then on writing. I know by heart songs that have been around for centuries and can teach them to others, for example, and I own books that are more than 150 years old and can still read them and pass them on to my kids. But the computer games that my children adored twenty years ago are gone forever. Will the internet in its current form be around in 150 years? Again, I don’t think so. The internet is amazing, but it is fragile. Think of the supply chains necessary for you to read a Wikipedia article, from mining the rare metals for the computers and smart phones, through the delivery to consumers by means of nonrenewable fossil fuels, to the reliability of satellites in increasingly crowded orbits. Think of the environmental and economic costs along the way. Think of the political costs, too, of information so freely available – and so able to be tampered with by those who would like reality to be other than it is. If we are going to outsource an innate human capacity, should we be outsourcing it to such a vulnerable technology?

A durable technology

Third – and this should probably be first – by relying on these external technologies, are we shaping ourselves into the kind of people we are intended to be? Are we fully preparing ourselves for the real world and our role in it? There may be times we actually need to remember. We may need to have a map in our heads when we drive beyond a cellphone signal, for example. But we can anticipate more drastic circumstances than just driving in the boondocks. All religious traditions, as well as our experience and history, promise us suffering in this life. We notice, when considering that history, that people who suffered relied on what they remembered for comfort and inspiration – what they carried around in their actual, physical brains: scripture, songs, stories, and sayings that were a help to them. My students, even those raised in a religious tradition, don’t have any of those things stored in their heads. They don’t know stories or hymns, they are unfamiliar with their mothers and fathers in their faith, and they couldn’t recite a creed if you paid them.

I worry about them, about how they will manage now and in the future. Most of them get restless and anxious when they’re asked not to check their cell phones or computers for an hour and a half, which is reasonable if they are being asked to do without their memories for that long. I wouldn’t want to have amnesia, either. But if they have a hard time left to their own devices for a class period, what would they do if they were in a prison camp for a decade? Or in a more likely scenario, if they had a prolonged power outage – not a far-fetched concern, as Hurricane Sandy and Puerto Rico sin luz have shown us. But we don’t even need to look at disasters to anticipate a failure of stored memory capacity; they couldn’t memorize five names and titles for a test they knew about and had days to study for.

Durable and sustainable.

We don’t have to accept inventions mindlessly. We can ask ourselves what is good. If our bodies get flabby because we do too little physical work, we can reorganize our lives to walk more and exercise more. If our brains get flabby because we do too little mental work, we can reclaim the intellectual skills of the past. We have a great capacity for healing, both in body and in mind, and can rise to the challenge. We just have to know what is right for us as human beings and then live that way – “just” that, as if it were easy! If only there were an app for that.