Googling Socrates

Sunday Musings The current issue of Science magazine reports on a pair of recent studies that found that algorithmic search is altering the way humans remember facts.

In one study, subjects were told various bits of trivial information and asked to type notes of what they were told. They were then told their notes would either be stored in one of many different folders, or they would be erased. The researchers found that subjects who were their notes would be stored were better at remembering where the information was stored than they were at remembering the information itself. Those who were told their notes would be erased did better at remembering the information.

The researchers called this the “Google effect.” According to an abstract of the study:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

This reminded me of Plato’s The Phaedrus, composed sometime around 370 B.C., in which Socrates discusses the pernicious effects of alphabetic writing:

If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

The paradox, of course, of which Plato was doubtless aware, was that Socrates himself never wrote down anything. His method of inquiry and teaching was the Socratic dialog. It was Socrates’ student, Plato, who wrote down and reported on the dialogs. We only know of Socrates’ (purported) views on writing is what Plato wrote down and attributed to him.

We can take it, then, that Plato wasn’t actually endorsing Socrates’ condemnation of writing. Rather, he was reminding the reader of the more important point that argument from authority is no argument at all, even when that authority is Socrates. Genuine inquiry, the only reliable source of knowledge, involves more than a mere gathering, collating or recitation of facts.

The further paradox is that, while I remembered vaguely from my college reading that Plato had had something important to say about writing and memory, I had to Google it to get the correct reference.

So there you have it. No point, really. Just an observation. The Science researchers are not the first to have worried about the Google Effect.