Issues, Tech

Superhighway Smarts

By Alex Biles, University of Michigan

Yesterday was my mom’s birthday. And I distinctly remember thinking about her upcoming celebration this past weekend. Yet, over the last couple days, this anticipation vacated my brain to the point where I completely forgot (I am a terrible child *gulp*). That is, until I initiated the daily ritual of cracking open my laptop and logging onto Facebook upon waking up yesterday morning.

Now I would like to think that it would not have been more than a few more hours until I experienced my “durrr” moment, only to scramble for some last-minute gift, ensuring I arrived to the parents’ place in time for dinner. But there is absolutely no denying the convenience gained—and embarrassment saved—from having her birthday listed on the upper right corner of my Facebook news feed. Good thing we’re “friends” right?

The whole Facebook-to-the-rescue deal has me thinking.

As computers continue to play a larger role in our lives—and particularly our relationships—we humans have adapted by outsourcing more and more of our memory into electronic devices.

This isn’t unusual for humans. In The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell notes that, “An awful lot of what we remember is actually stored outside our brains. Most of us deliberately don’t memorize most of the phone numbers we need. But we do memorize where to find it…Perhaps most important, though, we store information with other people.”

Gladwell uses the example of other people in the book, such as going to a spouse to find our keys or mother to inquire about our childhood details. But in 2011 most of us utilize electronic devices to store phone numbers. And it’s not just digits. When it comes to everything from music to work records to random knowledge, the go-to guide for most is our beloved computer.

I’ve been to the same Detroit-area concert venues on numerous occasions, but would be slightly troubled if I were forced to head over in a heartbeat. Thanks to the existence of online mapping services, I’ve exerted less energy memorizing the route when I can MapQuest the directions two minutes before heading out the door. Think of the obscure information that we have relinquished to Wikipedia’s easily accessible servers, simply because it’s easier to Google “Fargo movie wiki” instead of remembering the name of the actor that Steve Bucemi tells to smoke a peace pipe, right before he gets his ass kicked.

While the idea of skipping memorization in favor of electric secretaries may suggest that humans are just getting lazier, I’m not so convinced. Rather, our brains are naturally outsourcing content to locations that hold a comparative advantage in storage, allowing our upper story to specialize in what it does best. Knowledge leads to more knowledge.

Now it’s very difficult to imagine what we wouldn’t know if we didn’t have most of these Web 2.0 applications at our disposal, but ask yourself this question anyway. Isn’t the most satisfying time to log into Facebook or read the The New York Times several hours or days since your last visit? Say, when you first wake up? It’s certainly more satisfying than logging in every 20 minutes only to see the same shit. We humans love our online serendipity and the most effective method of maximizing it is engaging with media in a way that diversifies our experiences, as elapsed time and involvement in multiple online communities will do. The more we engage, the more information we process.

This underscores the importance of establishing strong external memory sharing and storage locations—on and offline—but perhaps more interesting, it suggests that online services from Facebook to Wikipedia have the ability to make us smarter.

After all, the increase in global interconnectivity that we have witnessed with the rise of Web 2.0 has also granted each and every one of us additional outsourcing locations for our memory that were previously unavailable due to geographical constraints or simple lack of information. With more trading partners than ever before, the opportunities to access inexpensive information from biological or electronic sources are boundless.

Our brains are able to process more information than at any given time in human history. As I type this, these processing abilities are growing as new types of web-based infrastructure are developed.

Of course, whether this information falls in the practical, theoretical, or trivial realm is another matter. Facebook and Wikipedia serve very different purposes and offer very different incentives for usage, but they are similar in a most important way—their informational (and monetary) value is contingent on content creation derived from the internal and external memories of users like you and me.

The capacity of the latter for sharing memory is fascinating. On Facebook, potential contributions to our memory are filtered by personal selection of relationships, but on Wikipedia, there are no ethnic, educational, or asshole barriers holding back individuals from accessing the memory of others who donate their perceived expertise. It’s incredible to think that we intake a great deal of our information from people who we might hate if we ever met—or even crazier, people who we will never know exist.

Now not everybody is hip to this viewpoint. Many see Facebook as a time waster and I’m keen to agree with them if we’re talking about the obsessive FarmVille types that unfortunately encompass a much larger proportion of users than should be considered healthy.

And research is mixed. A study by Tracy Alloway from the University of Stirling in Scotland found that logging onto Facebook indeed strengthened working memory. However, Twitter and YouTube did not. Something tells me StumbleUpon would fall on this side of the fence as well.

Meanwhile, an Ohio State University study notes a negative correlation between GPA scores and Facebook usage, although GPA is likely a better indicator of procrastination or simply not giving a fuck rather than intelligence.

This bounty of external storage locations for our memory does not mean an enhanced capacity to maintain relationships, either—remembering birthdays be damned. For the time being, the rule of 150, or Dunbar’s number, appears to hold up in online social circles as well. And the bounty of external storage locations for memory may, or may not mean greater diversity in the types of memories that we store.

In the end, it’s about the choices we make. We can turn our social networks, online media, search engines and wikis into time-wasting intellectual ghettos, or we can take advantage of their serendipity and make them work for us. I truly believe that growing interconnectivity and the rise of countless locations for memory storage and exchange have upgraded our ability to process information in the most revolutionary fashion the human narrative has seen.

Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and The New Student Union all have the capacity to make you smarter. To quote a rather Nas-ty rapper, “the world is yours.”

Alex Biles is a co-founder of The New Student Union.

If web services indeed enhance our capacity to store and exchange memories by processing information, do they make us smarter? SOUND OFF!



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


One thought on “Superhighway Smarts

  1. I agree completely, but if used responsibly. It’s much like how people always advise to back up the data on our computers to external hard drives, flash drives, and online storage (more on that in a future post); we’re being efficient in what information we store internally and what we store externally. How different is looking up the plot to Shakespeare’s Richard II from asking an English professor about it?

    Posted by makuezue | August 19, 2011, 11:54 pm

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