The irony of the web – it links so we don't

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Could it be one of the ironies of the web that the more easily it enables us to link documents and data together, the less able we become to make lateral links in our brains?

In the Pew ‘Future of the Internet Survey’, published last week, a number of experts suggested that the net will shift our cognitive capabilities. Particularly in respect to memory. Thanks in part to Google and sites like Wikipedia our brains will, they say, become less good at information stockpiling and more adept at information retrieval – less like sponges soaking up water, more like dogs fetching balls.

“What Google does do” Alex Brun said, ”Is simply to enable us to shift certain tasks to the network ‐ we no longer need to rote‐learn certain seldomly‐used facts (the periodic table, the post code of Ballarat) if they’re only a search away, for example”.

“[C]ertain tasks will be “offloaded” to Google or other Internet services rather than performed in the mind, especially remembering minor details” another respondent, Dean Bubley suggested.

This shift is generally presented in a positive light. People will move away from unthinking learning, the argument goes, and towards a higher level of interpretation and analysis (though Brun worries about our future reliance on Google et al).

‘[W]ith this capacity [rote memory] freed, we may (and probably will) be capable of more advanced integration and evaluation of information’ says Stephen Downes of the Canadian National Research Council.

But is this right? Is rote learning necessarily dumb learning, and therefore devoid much cognitive benefit? Or does learning things by heart enable our brains to make connections they would otherwise miss?

In his introduction to a 2002 collection of poetry, By Heart, Ted Hughes explained why he thought it was so important to commit poems to memory. Partly, Hughes argued, because it made the poems much richer. Once learnt they play over in our minds and different meanings seap out over time.

Even more importantly, once learnt by heart fragments of poems can occur to you spontaneously in other situations. You’ll glance at a scene and find it is perfectly captured, say, by a line from Wordsworth. Or one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales will let you to put a difficult situation in perspective.

Translate that to journalism. Imagine you’re reporting on a court case involving a particularly complex property fraud. You could, of course, research similar cases on the net – and almost certainly find many more cases a lot more easily than you could have done in the past. But if you remembered those cases – either through having attended them or learnt about them in the past, then questions would occur to you as the case unfolded and your understanding would have that much more context.

Will we, when we stop learning by heart, find ourselves less capable of making lateral connections?

Written by Martin Moore

February 22nd, 2010 at 5:20 pm

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2 Responses to 'The irony of the web – it links so we don't'

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  1. > once learnt by heart fragments of poems can occur to you spontaneously in other situations. You’ll glance at a scene and find it is perfectly captured, say, by a line from Wordsworth. Right. It gives you a vocabulary. In addition to words, which you also know, learned poetry gives you a way to express feelings, experience, and ideas.But it's a limited vocabulary, and one that is being imposed out of context. Young people today, especially, already have a very rich vocabulary they can apply, a multimedia melange of music, video and cinema, popular writing and media, and internet expressions and memes.More to the point, it's not a vocabulary that is learned a priori and then applies to experiences where it might be appropriate, it's an adaptive, context-rich, self-created vocabulary. By learning how to create, instead of to remember, young people are greatly increasing their expressive power.


    23 Feb 10 at 3:45 pm

  2. Hi Stephen,I think you're right about the way learnt poetry helps people express feelings and gives context to experience – and that young people today have a rich media vocabulary (and 'digital native' skills I'll never have), though something I think we will lose if we exercise our memory less, is the ability to make connections between seemingly unconnected things – because we will, to a certain extent at least, rely on clever online algorithms to do that for us.I take your point about creation. The means by which to create are now legion – and the opportunity to express what you create to a mass audience unprecedented.

    Martin Moore

    23 Feb 10 at 9:36 pm

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