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The Googlization of Memory: Information Overload and the Fracturing of Knowledge

In this excerpt from his new book The Googlization of Everything, author Siva Vaidhyanathan asks, “Are we drowning in data, unable to distinguish good from bad, true from false?”

The Googlization of Everything

“I forgot to remember to forget,” Elvis Presley sang in 1955. I know that
it was 1955 because I just Googled the title and clicked on the link to the
Wikipedia entry for the song. Not long ago I would have had to actually
remember that Elvis recorded the song as part of his monumental Sun
Records sessions in 1955. Then I would have had to flip through a set
of histories of blues and country music that sit on a shelf behind me. It
might have taken five minutes to do what I did in five seconds. I don’t
need my own memory any more. And I don’t seem to need these books
as much as I used to.

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This change strikes most of us as a good thing. The costs seem low.
The benefits seem high. Our searches for information can be much more
efficient and comprehensive now that this teeming collection of documents
sits just a few keystrokes away. As a totally wired person, I have
access to more information than I could ever know what to do with. So
it feels somewhat liberating that I don’t have to remember to remember
very much. Are we suffering, in this time of constant connectivity
and cheap distribution of images, texts, and sounds, from some sort of
global cultural malady? Are we drowning in data, unable to distinguish
good from bad, true from false? Are we paralyzed by our obsessions to
consume, to be aware, and to be connected? What tools help us manage
this abundance? What tools hinder our abilities to live well and richly?

The standard description of the difference between knowledge and
information does not fully describe our current condition. Knowledge,
as Neil Postman explained, involves what, at least pragmatically, is true
and good, beautiful and useful. Information always requires interpretation–
some form of processing–to be judged so and thus to begin to
serve as the basis for knowledge. Too much unprocessed information
interferes with to the generation and utility of knowledge: it can generate
anxiety, wasted effort, and paralysis. It can obscure the valuable and
beautiful. It can also diminish respect for the carefully crafted containers
of knowledge. As David Shenk explains in his essential book Data Smog,
“Information, once rare and cherished like caviar, is now plentiful and
taken for granted like potatoes.” The gentle rejoinder to Shenk’s concern,
of course, is that caviar was once reserved for the rich and potatoes for
the poor. Perhaps the availability of potatoes for the rich and poor alike
constitutes an overall improvement. And, after all, it’s what you make
with the potatoes that really matters. But all information is processed in
some way–selected, even roughly, from some collection of signals not
deemed relevant or organized enough to even qualify as information.
I am not convinced that the standard distinction between information
and knowledge helps us understand anything very well. What matters
is how we choose what to consider in our daily judgments and choices.

From childhood onward, we have usually allowed others to process
the information we receive–to filter it. As technology writer Clay Shirky
argues, what we think is information overload is actually a function of
“filter failure.” When we feel overwhelmed by the quantity of news and
information we encounter, it’s a sign that we have just not figured out
how to manage our flows of information. With discipline, or perhaps
with disciplining technology, we can manage to achieve serenity even
with Blackberrys in our pockets. Concentration, mental discipline, and
time management count as filters. So does Google. If Francis Bacon was
correct, and knowledge is an element of power, but not necessarily the
source of it, then granting Google the knowledge it needs to do the filtering
for us also grants it power. We might be comfortable with that.
Clearly, most people are (including me). But we should not be blind to
the consequences.

Remembering Without Forgetting

The ease of retrieving information with Google might make us too lazy
to remember things on our own. I can’t remember my mother’s phone
number. On the other hand, thanks to Google, I can pretend that I never
forget, either. I have the potential to connect myself to an abundance of
very odd and useless things. But ultimately I choose what elements to
remember and comfortably ignore the rest.

My grandfather was born in South India in 1907 and lived to the age
of eighty-six. As a Brahmin, he fulfilled his expected role in society as
one who memorizes and recites sacred Sanskrit texts. As a young boy,
he mastered hundreds of hours of prayers and stories (slokas). Well into
his last years he could roll out slokas like Mick Jagger singing “(I Can’t
Get No) Satisfaction.” But his knowledge of these texts was more than
mere rote learning: he understood them as well, studying them on paper
in Sanskrit and in English translation. He had strong opinions about
which translations were best. When I was about ten years old he recited
the entire Ramayana in English for me over the course of twelve nights.

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Yet my grandfather had cognitive limitations as well. As best I could
figure, these limitations were the result of knowing a great deal about a
few things and too little about broader fields. He could not fathom how
rockets lifted into space or how women could expect to do the work
traditionally done by men. I could never convince him that the stars did
not determine our fates. He looked on in wonder and awe as the world
changed around him, especially after he immigrated to the United States
in the late 1970s. But he never expanded his mental frames beyond his
impressive scholarly training. My grandfather had a memory so powerful
that he would surely be described as a genius by today’s standards.
Yet he was incapable of thinking clearly about many issues, blinded by
his perspective and position. Me? I can Google with the best of them
and inform myself about a vast range of topics. So which one of us was
the more capable thinker?

In his short story “Funes, His Memory,” Jorge Luis Borges writes
of the misery of young Ireneo Funes of Argentina, who is cursed with
the inability to forget. “He had effortlessly learned English, French,
Portuguese, Latin,” the narrator tells us. “I suspected, nevertheless, that
he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences,
to generalize, to abstract.” Forgetting is just as important to the
act of thinking as remembering. With his inability to forget, Funes simply
can’t make sense of anything. He can’t think abstractly. He can’t judge
facts by relative weight or seriousness. He is lost in details and can’t
discriminate between the important and the trivial, the old and the new.
Painfully, Funes cannot rest. Google is not just our memory machine; it
is also our forgetting machine, because it filters abundance for us.

The costs of such powerful collective memory are higher than we
usually assume. Some things, even if we do not wish them forgotten,
should at least be put into context. Consider the ordeal of the Vancouver
psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar, who tried to cross into the United
States to pick up a friend at the Seattle-Tacoma airport in April 2007.
At the U.S. border, an agent decided to Google his name. The search
yielded a link to an academic article Feldmar had published in 2001, in
which, he described his experiences with LSD while studying with R. D.
Laing in the 1960s. Despite having no criminal record and throwing up
no suspicious connections in government databases, the U.S. authorities
barred him from entering the United States because he had admitted
using a controlled substance illegally.

Before the Web, before Google, that border agent would have had
only the standard tools of law enforcement with which to decide whether
to prevent Feldmar from crossing the border. But we live in an era of
seemingly perfect memory, where any fact can be recalled at will. In
fact, this state is far from perfect. Total recall renders context, time, and
distance irrelevant. Something that happened forty years ago–whether
an example of youthful indiscretion or scholarly discretion–still matters
and can come back to haunt someone as if it had happened yesterday.

For most of human history, forgetting has been the default and
remembering the challenge. Chants, songs, books, libraries, and even
universities were established primarily to overcome our propensity to
forget. These aids to memory had physical and economic limitations
that in fact served us well. All these technologies of memory also act as
filters or editors. They help us remember much by discarding even more.
Today, digital information storage and retrieval have made remembering
the default state of knowledge and forgetting the accident or exception.
So quickly have we have moved from forgetting most things (or at
least rendering them hard to access) to remembering them (and making
them easy to search) that we have neglected to measure the effects of
this change. Just because we have the storage vessels, we feel the need
to fill them. Then we engage with networks of data communication that
offer disparate elements of our lives to strangers and–perhaps more
important–people we would like to know better.

Now that access to so much stuff is so easy, it’s easy to abuse small bits
of information and blow them up into character-degrading factors. Who
among us has not feared being misunderstood or mislabeled because
of some indelicate phrase written years ago on some e-mail list or even
in an academic paper, only to find that Google has made it accessible
to anybody who searches for our name? Even ten years ago we did not
consider that words written for a specific audience could easily reach
beyond that group and harm us at the hands of an ignorant or malicious
reader. Consider the plight of one of my students, who so far has left
only a limited digital trail in her short life. A Google search of her name
reveals only one element of public significance: a campaign contribution
she made in 2008. She worries, not without cause, that this rather flat
Google profile may prejudice prospective employers. The costs of such
easy proliferation of information may be undramatic but nonetheless
trenchant. Collectively, foolishly, we are building a collective memory
about as subtle and thoughtful as Funes’s own.

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As with Funes, the proliferation of data in our lives and the rudimentary
filters we use manage it render us incapable of judging, discriminating,
or engaging in deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning, which one
could argue is entering a golden age with the rise of massive databases
and the processing power needed to detect patterns and anomalies, is
beyond the reach of lay users of Internet. To deal with these changes,
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger suggests we engage in a significant reengineering
or reimagining of the default habits of our species: to record,
retain, and release as much information as possible. Because we have
for centuries struggled against the inertia of forgetting, we can’t easily
comprehend the momentum and risks of remembering.

Excerpted from The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) by Siva Vaidhyanathan (University of California Press). Reprinted by permission.

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