The Google Effect?

What is it and does it exist?


Google’s power and reach is pretty terrifying. In an average month, the search engine attracts 1.17 billion unique users, dwarfing its nearest rival, Bing.

Its applications are far ranging. Gmail, its free email service, has 900 million users, and its map provider has tracked over 30 million miles since 2005. Whilst these apps represent two of Google’s most used services, its scope of influence spans far wider.

It has an application for almost every imaginable task. Most say that this makes everything more convenient, others say that it’s damaging our ability to think for ourselves and use our intuition and memory. The Independent stated that we’ve ‘outsourced our memories, safe in the knowledge that answers are just a click away.’

The concept was initially developed by Betsy Sparrow, Columbia University, who was exploring the hypothesis that we are less likely to remember information when we know it’s easily accessible online.

Her findings didn’t suggest that we were becoming less intelligent, but that we’re now more likely to remember where information is stored, rather than concentrating on traditional learning. This implies that our brains are adapting, rather than becoming less effective.

Sparrow’s experiment, coined the ‘Google Effect’, was conducted in 2011. Google’s reach, however, has grown considerably since then - there were one billion more searches per day in 2014 than in 2011 - prompting people to ask whether the findings in Sparrow’s experiment had developed.

In response to this, a study carried out by the Kaspersky Lab found that over 90% of Americans suffer from ‘Digital amnesia’, what they define as an over dependance on the internet ‘as a tool for remembering’. In line with this, more than 70% of parents can’t memorize their children’s mobile phone numbers, a situation far removed from when landlines were the norm.

The findings in the Kaspersky Lab’s study were similar, almost identical, to Sparrow’s. The internet has basically changed the way we think about storing information. Some argue that this actually levels the intellectual playing field, giving us a base line of intelligence, making us seem more knowledgable than we really are.

Students can search for World War One and find a simple timeline which details the period’s main events - something which would have only been possible through reading books twenty years ago - and probably pass an exam. This doesn’t mean that this generation’s capacity to remember is weaker than those before, they’ve just been educated in a time when information can be accessed much more easily.

We shouldn’t forget that we’re the first people to experience the internet. We should be forgiven for not getting the balance right straightaway. The findings in the surveys above demonstrate that we don’t bother to remember certain things, not that we’re incapable of doing it. The ‘Google Effect’ is real, but we’re not getting less intelligent, we’re just using our memory in a different way.


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