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Google Effect (wikipedia.org)
137 points by rsiqueira on Jan 10, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

Socrates said the same about the invention of writing:

"And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own."


Nice find, and good reminder about the static nature of written words. Socrates would have been fascinated with online forums and Wikipedia where words are constantly updated, fought over, defended and attacked by anyone with a soul!

> by anyone with a soul

And a lot of people without souls, such as myself.

Why in the world was this downvoted?

nice catch

Interestingly thr same issue could be sqid to applytot photography... Or social media!

And maybe Google 'autocorrect' has ruined our spelling?

I find the reverse. After seeing a common mistake a few times I tend to start writing it correctly. Kind of a "me vs spell check" game.

The one true strength of humans over all other species is we adapt like no species before. This is simply another adaptation, and if we suddenly lose the internet, we'll adapt again. I don't fear the consequences, because we'll either have the internet "forever", or we won't, and whatever causes it to go away will be a far bigger problem than our ability to remember quotes.

"if we suddenly lose the internet, we'll adapt again"

If we suddenly lose the internet, say by a solar or asteroid thing, we have bigger problems to worry about...although tips of making shelter and fire could come in handy ;).

But I almost agree with you, I am afraid that this dependence on Search Engines will translate into less research and eventual advancement.

What were reference books for then? Sneaky cheats of some sort?

For some things relying on memory is not the best way. To exaggerate the point, pilots have procedures written down to follow, a check list. They deliberately do not rely on memory. When I was doing things like upgrading server OSs I always looked for the latest check-list and procedures. I could usually remember the steps, but I didn't want to rely on that in case something crucial had changed or something new added.

Another thing that springs to mind is that courts don't accept memory as perfect or reliable.

Personally I do everything possible not to rely on memory, as I consider my self to have a poor memory, and google helps massively with that. And yes, I considered my memory poor way before google existed.

The classic way of learning has evolved with history. Before having books, everything was memorized with a few exceptions. The Google era is just another step in this evolution. Why would we waste time memorizing stuff if we can just look it up? Might be argued that Googling takes time. Of course it does, but there will come the next era where our thought could prompt a query and get an answer without physically doing it. That will be the next step in human learning.

Sounds like sci-fi? So did the idea of having all the information available on the tip of your hands 30 years ago.

> Why would we waste time memorizing stuff if we can just look it up

Because from memorized knowledge comes inspiration. If you are thinking about something, and actually know many things you can put all those things together subconsciously and have a flash of insight.

Without all that memorized knowledge you have to laboriously look everything up and you may never make the connections.

If there's one thing I remember well it's relationships and behaviours(probably the same for most engineers). This is distinct from what I would call knowledge (i.e. when something happened). For me inspiration always seems to come from comparing relationships and behaviours, memorizing information rotely doesn't contribute to this at all.

The problem I've found is I've become so used to no "waste time memorizing stuff" I've forgotten how to memorize things.

Which is a problem when I need to learn things that can't just be looked up online when you need them, like a new language. When I try to learn new vocabulary or something my brain just refuses to leave its default lazy "aww, just look it up on Google" mode. It's annoying.

I agree with you, it is quite annoying. I found an interesting quote from a PG's essay "Great Hackers" [1]: "Several friends mentioned hackers' ability to concentrate-- their ability, as one put it, to "tune out everything outside their own heads.'' I've certainly noticed this. And I've heard several hackers say that after drinking even half a beer they can't program at all. So maybe hacking does require some special ability to focus. Perhaps great hackers can load a large amount of context into their head, so that when they look at a line of code, they see not just that line but the whole program around it. John McPhee wrote that Bill Bradley's success as a basketball player was due partly to his extraordinary peripheral vision. "Perfect'' eyesight means about 47 degrees of vertical peripheral vision. Bill Bradley had 70; he could see the basket when he was looking at the floor. Maybe great hackers have some similar inborn ability. (I cheat by using a very dense language, which shrinks the court.)"

[1] [http://www.paulgraham.com/gh.html]

Learn to use Spaced Repetition software like Anki or Mnemosyne.

The Wikipedia editing-needed tag on this article: "This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards. The specific problem is: poorly written. Please help improve this article if you can."

No kidding. The sources are not good-quality sources by Wikipedia standards


for the kind of assertions found in the article. This needs a lot more work in reading reliable secondary sources to be worth discussing here. In general, Wikipedia articles as articles to be submitted for discussion in Hacker News are usually not a good first choice of a submission source--I write this as a Wikipedian.

AFTER EDIT: From another top-level comment in this thread, I see the "quotation"

"Never memorize what you can look up in books." -- Albert Einstein

Are you sure that Albert Einstein really said that? The memory of his life is plagued by falsely attributed "quotations" of sayings Einstein never said. The particular "quotation" you mention is listed as unverified on Wikiquote.


"Never memorize what you can look up in books." -- Albert Einstein

Never memorize anything you can derive.

Yes. Memorizing answers when learning the method is possible. Takes longer, but you tend not to forget. The reams of notes I used to watch people take to avoid learning the method and equation.

Addition and multiplication tables might be a good exception to this...

Or the case of Feynman and the cat map:


Hang on - isn't it widely accepted that spatial information represents our greatest mental bandwidth, both in terms of input and in terms of memory? The ancient Greek orators' "memory palaces" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci) provide one early recognition of this mental faculty.

With the preponderance of meatspace-spatial terms used for electronic services ("room", "space", "site", "zone", "stream", "page", "locker", "file", etc.) doesn't it follow that spatial reasoning will begin to function on nonspatial environs, based upon mental conceptions?

On an interesting and related tangent I recently saw a presentation in Jarkta, Indonesia by an Arizona-based academic who analyzed the twitter words used around recent conflicts and determined a heavy spatial semantic bent:

The argument IIRC was that the general population of twitter are responding to oppression against high-level cognitive concepts such as human rights with spatially reasoned dialogue: '"The Cloud and the Ground: Political Activism in the Digital Media Age"' @ International Conference on Communication, University of Indonesia, Depok, Indonesia, 6-7 December 2012. http://merlyna.org/appearances/

Unfortunately it's not available online. Oh, the irony!

PS. After the conference I hassled the keynote speakers about the lack of a program incorporating Wikileaks and government surveillance. Furthermore, Participants needed to register with the university in order to access censored internet. Later, Creative Commons Indonesia threw a party within the US-run '@America' facility (designed to manipulate the perception of America by Indonesian muslim youth - source: NYT), a disgusting venue given that they are currently pushing TPP. I did complain to Creative Commons' ethics board.

I am not sure why they call it Google effect, when it can be called generically "library" effect. It's the adaptation of our brain to store externally certain data, generally speaking.

What it means: our brains should be used to process and derive from raw data and not hold the raw data, as well as the pointers to the certain not important ( read: life esentials) processes or data.

Once you learn how to find ( in a library, or google, or whatever ), you can offload your brain with remembering stuff that you know how to reach it in a matter of seconds ( or any other useful time unit ).

On the other hand, own survival insticts will help us learn and remember without any books what to do in certain dangerous or life-threatening situations. This doesn't exclude that you may die from stupidity :).

This is nothing new, and the purposless of learning a poem while in school seems to me now even greater. At the oposite, stays my techical university where all the exams were open to documentation on table, and encouraged to use them while in exams. I guess, for me, searching in google is a natural extension to this.

vannevar-bush's idea of memex (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vannevar_Bush#Memex_concept) is very notably missing from discussion here as well as the referenced article.

This reminds me of the difference between pointers and actual values - it is more efficient for you to memorize where the detailed and possibly complex information can be found. Memorizing all the long-winded data just doesn't give you that much advantage anymore in this era of information explosion. I think it is fairly natural that most people accept this trade-off. This is comparable with the invention of cars vs. walking. Cars might increased the rate of obessity but we certainly did not forget how to walk. It is very interesting to see how human adapt to these big changes without the biological evolution rate anywhere near the rate of change in technologies.

It's probably because the successful technologies are adapted to humans, as opposed to the other way round.

They are also built on top of technology that we are already familiar with. For example, QWERTY keyboards because typewriters used QWERTY.

A technology that humans can't understand, perhaps because it's not yet time, will struggle to gain any real traction outside a select few.

Same thing is happening with the GPS... we are loosing our sense of orientation...

Similar to losing a friend? How about similar to losing a portion of my brain?

Better! Although its a corner of one's brain that harbours some pretty nasty stuff that can spring to the fore at the slip of a key.

I buy into this -- I very rarely remember a fact or tidbit of information that I quickly search for, especially when compared to what I remember when I read an article or news story and pick up a factoid from that.

Am I better or worse off from it? I'd almost assuredly argue better off, as quick access to virtually any information is one of the biggest highlights of our time.

Slightly irrelevant, but how valid would it be to be asked the SVN commands in an interview? Should I go an memorize the SVN manual just to succeed in interviews, although I use a graphical tool?

It depends, are you trying to get a job contributing to SVN? I would say no.

Bringing it back on topic, I was just thinking the other day how I've been using git for the last two years straight, and still have to google Every.Single.Time when I have to do a command I don't often do, like unstaging a deleted file. And it's usually the same link to a StackOverflow post that my eye instantly zooms to because it's purple.

This is particularly true for all thing programming-related.

I have this tendency with the spelling of the java class names because of expansion of the the camel case abbreviation by eclipse.

Don't you just hate it when you notice something, talk about it amongst your peers and go on talking it then ten years later someone gives it a name after doing a study which wasn't really needed because its so visible.

I was interviewing people with a view that they didn't just rely on Google, but if they did need to use the google effect they could find answers very quickly. if the Internet wasn't available they could use whatever other resources to find the answer.

I don't know that I "hate" it, quite the contrary, seems like an affirmation that I was onto something quicker than other people which is probably a good thing. I must admit I was pretty shocked that the year in the linked article was 2011.

Why was it not necessary? That’s a road to ruin. Nothing is obvious.

Using IDE in programming makes you forget the class methods and type of arguments. Is that the same thing?

Scumbag Google: Gives you access to infinite information, ruins your memory for accessing information.

I saw the title, but I had to look it up.

Nicholas Carr wrote a book on this, right?

The irony of quickly searching for this made me chuckle:


So what happens when I forget what the Google Effect is and I have to Google for it?

i have this problem ;)

This happens to me and I think is related to learning habits for general subjects. I remember my association to information more than the information itself. It's why I'm bad at learning history (despite finding it fascinating) unless it's an issue that I can link to myself and relate to personally and build a connection. Similarly, on a weekly basis I Google for `site:news.ycombinator.com drivebyacct2 <some keyword I know I used>` to get back to a post or discussion that I want to reference.

I feel kind of bad about this as I introspect, I'm sure this reliance on third parties has a detrimental effect on my ability to remember information that I could compose to build new knowledge or apply to new situations.

You shouldn't feel bad, it is us optimizing, we're making use of our limited mental faculties to focus on what we're good at - complex/creative/rational thinking, offloading the data to whatever is convenient.

I'm so rarely optimistic about things, I feel my initial optimism in this regard means I must be right... apparently I'm being optimistic about that too! ;)

Don't feel bad. I also have awful memory and despite seeking help for it (and flunking history multiple times!), I simply don't have the capacity to remember certain things.

My memory finally "improved" when I discovered that phone numbers need not be numbers but a pattern on a key pad. I couldn't, and still can't, remember much unless there are logical patterns and derivations. The year 1806 is random integers attached to an event.

Pattern-matching and derived memorization is looked down upon as something inferior to rote or "photographic" memory. I think this is sad state of affairs: regurgitating how-to doesn't help anyone understand anything. Being able to derive concepts and ideas offers a deep understanding and visualization of the world that no one trained into rote memory can ever attain. So, I consider the fact that I had to redefine "memory" in a way my brain can understand it a blessing, not a curse.

hnsearch.com (or the "search" box at the bottom of most HN pages) is more convenient, since it lets you filter by stories or comments, and sort by date or points.

True but we're remembering (and using our brain for) more important things. Like....ummm...uhhhh....

How about the spellcheckers? Can we even spell correctly after all these years without them?

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