Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Google Effect

Far be it from me to argue with the brilliant men and women of science who crowd the halls of academia, running into each other as they madly dash about in the pursuit of knowledge. But there are times their discoveries leave me scowling dubiously at the newspaper, television or computer screen.

For instance, the recent item headlined, "Does Google make your memory weaker?" Researchers at Columbia University, according to the article, have found that Google and other search engines have changed the way we remember things. A person doing a computer search for a piece of information, the researchers claim, is less likely than a person poring over a book to remember what he found out. Although, the googler is more likely to remember where he found the information he has since forgotten.

This might explain the whoppers certain Republican presidential hopefuls have been trying to pass off as history. If the liberal media would allow politicians to use their laptops during interviews, the candidates could quickly access the relevant facts and avoid the shame of misrememberating whom Paul Revere hoped to alert during his ride, for example.

But that is not the reason for my skepticism. What I want to know is, if it's so easy to remember where I found some arcane fact a month ago, why is it I can't remember where I put my pen ten seconds ago?

The problem started on page 164 of First Family: Abigail and John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis. On that page, Ellis quotes from a letter of Abigail's written late in the 18th Century, in which she says to John, "It may be called the telegraph of the mind." An obvious error, I assumed, and I rushed to dictionary.com to find when "telegraph" entered the language, so I could gloat and look down my persnickety nose at Mr. Ellis. But the word "telegraph," I discovered, made its debut in 1794, fifty years before Samuel Morse converted "What hath God wrought?" to dits and dahs.

As the researchers at Columbia would have predicted, I promptly forgot the year. But this morning, a spark rekindled my interest in the history of the word. So, I grabbed Ellis' book. I didn't grab it right away, of course. To do that, I would have had to remember where I put it. My search began with the place where I was sure I put it, and became increasingly frenetic as I moved through the places where I might have put it to the places where I knew darn well I hadn't put it. I don't know how it got there, but it was in the least likely spot of all: the bookshelf. Cuddles must have put it there.

Finding paper to jot down some notes was easy. There was still paper in the printer from yesterday, which is another story. I was writing a letter that needed to look like it came from someone who knew what he was doing and thought it best to use the printer to address the envelope - all the better to give it a professional sheen. The printer spat out the envelope, I picked it up, scanned it for egregious errors and set it aside for a moment. Well, it would have been a moment, except by the time I signed and folded the letter I'd forgotten where I put the envelope.

This morning, I had the book, some paper and my pen was next to the computer. Taking pen in hand, I made a few squiggly lines to make sure it had ink and then, as Mother always told me, I put back where I got it, next to the computer. Or so I thought. I had no trouble remembering where I got the information on "telegraph," and was on the dictionary.com site in a trice. But before I could write down the information, I spent fifteen frustrating minutes looking for the pen.

Remembering where I found things is a useful tool now and then. But I'd be much more thankful if the researchers could find a website that would help remember where I put things.

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