Thursday, February 24, 2011

LRB · Jim Holt · Smarter, Happier, More Productive

Excerpt from an insightful review of “The Shallows”

This raises a prospect that has exhilarated many of the digerati. Perhaps the internet can serve not merely as a supplement to memory, but as a replacement for it. ‘I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything,’ says Clive Thompson, a writer for Wired, ‘because I can instantly retrieve the information online.’ David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, writes: ‘I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realised the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants – silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.’

Books also serve as external memory-storage devices; that is why Socrates, in the Phaedrus, warned that the innovation of writing would lead to the atrophy of human memory. But books have expanded the reservoir of information and ideas, and, through the practice of attentive reading, have enriched the memory, not superseded it. The internet is different. Thanks to algorithmic search engines like Google, the whole universe of online information can be scanned in an instant. Not only do you not have to remember a fact, you don’t even have to remember where to look it up. In time, even the intermediary of a computer screen might prove unnecessary – why not implant a wireless Google connection right in the head? ‘Certainly,’ says Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, ‘if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.’

LRB · Jim Holt · Smarter, Happier, More Productive

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