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Searching on Google has become nothing more than an automatic reflex: an instant scratch to our persistent itch for knowledge. Don’t know? The answer is simple: Google it. This has become, indeed, a common sense assumption – so much so, that even the English language has had to cater for our automatic dependence on the almighty search engine. Words such as “to Google”, “Googling”, and “Googlisation”, have slipped neatly into the jargon of our internet-obsessed age. What Google offers to the individual user is an infinite set of possibilities at the click of a button. It is fast, efficient, and satisfies the unquenchable human desire to know.
If we stop to think about it, Google has entirely revolutionised the way we access and share information. It operates on the basic premise outlined in the company’s mission statement: to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. An ambitious mission to say the least. But Google has, in fact, all the right tools in place to accomplish its goals. It creates applications which are free and easy to use: Google Books, Google News, Gmail, Google Maps, and many others. Through these applications, the personal information of each and every user is collected and stored in Google’s giant memory bank. Google doesn’t simply retain every book, page or sentence, but every point of interface online: every click, movement, email, voice message and download. By collecting and storing this information, Google learns, becomes smarter, and ultimately more “knowledgable” – more capable of providing better, more accurate information to its users. And to ensure the flourishing of its seemingly flawless relationship, it has fostered a generation of users who have become entirely dependent on the applications it offers, the so-called “Google Generation”.
What is interesting is the way that Google seems to mimic the human faculty of memory. “Memory,” says Prof Richard Muscat, a neuroscientist and lecturer at the University of Malta’s Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, “is a change in the strength of connections between nerve cells in the brain. The capacity for knowledge is dependent to a major extent on our memory .” In other words, we learn through our ability to remember, and we remember in order to know and process the world we live in.
If Google is changing the way we obtain and share our information, however, what effect is that having on the way we remember? A large one, apparently, according to researchers at Columbia University. In a recent study published in Science Magazine, it has been suggested that people are changing their capacity to remember due to the ability of search engines, such as Google, to memorise things for them. The study also showed that users are more likely to remember where the information was found, rather than the information itself. When asked for his views on the matter, Prof Muscat said that: “There are different ways to learn things and then store them in memory – what this may be arguing is the fact that Google is biasing our system to learn in a way that is not that what has been in the past – whether this is good or bad needs to be determined but with the vast amount of information available today this might be a strategy to cope with such.”
What is evident is the fact that Google’s similarity to human memory is slowly making it the ideal substitute for memory. Our computer has become, essentially, the brain outside our brain – an external storage for every little detail of our lives. Losing our internet connection today is tanamount to the largest possible catastrophe our minds can fathom.
And what, then, of our collective memory? How is our total dependence on the seeming infinitude of the worldwide web affecting how our history is being written? It seems only logical that, if people are shifting their entire lives online – including the way they interact with each other and share information – then public memory is also moving its location online. Google, therefore, not only acts as a store for personal interactions, but is indeed reminiscent of the total archive alluded to by Calvino’s narrator in his short story “The Memory of the World”:
“An archive that will bring together and catalogue everything that is known about every person, animal and thing, by way of a general inventory not only of the present but of the past too, of everything that has ever been since time began, in short a general and simultaneous history of everything, or rather a catalogue of everything moment by moment.”
Google remembers everything. And in doing so, it archives the history of humanity, one click at a time.
Dr John Chircop, Director of the Public Memory Archive and Centre, recently set up to “address the growing interest in the study of the relationship between memory and history”, seems convinced that the “the future lies in digital archiving”.
“Digitalisation,” he claims, “has now made it possible to record, scan and make accessible, individual and collective experiences, which was yesterday impossible. Thus, the recording of hundreds of oral testimonies and life experiences of the ‘common people’, conjointly with the scanning and digitalizing of their individual family and community visual and written records has now become possible – and this actually is one main purpose of the Public Memory Archive Centre, which is the only institution of its kind in Malta.”
Dr Chircop seems bent on joining and generating interest in the digital revolution which is fast contributing to the creation of virtual archives worldwide. Other projects, such as the now frozen Google News Archive, or Malta’s very own MP3 (The Malta Music Memory Project) – among many others spearheaded by independent and public organisations everywhere – seem resolved to help Google fulfil its mission, what Dr Chircop calls “the democratisation of knowledge or information”.
Dr Chircop’s work, however, does not eliminate the human element completely. What is being digitalised at the Public Memory Archive are, at the end of the day, actual recollected memories. It relies almost entirely on the recollections of real people. His sources are the people themselves.
The real question therefore lies in whether this will be possible in the near future. If the researchers at Columbia University are right, in a few years we will have lost our ability to give testimony to our experiences. Our experiences will only be accessible through our virtual memories: through the ever-expanding labyrinths of Google. Public collective memory, therefore, can only be amassed by gathering memories that have been created online. “Fast-forwarding a few years,” Dr Chircop reflects, “future historians will have to deal with the digital space: they have to be able to face the problems related to such tasks, and one of the main purposes of this [Public Memory] archive is to create an open discussion on this.”
I ask Prof Muscat whether he agrees that today our public collective memory is being created online. “The problem with this is that memory does not occur in a vacuum”, he replies. “It has a context and maybe what the internet does is remove the context, and thus creates a sort of memory which is not first-hand, so to say, but is a new kind of memory that one is able to refer to with limitations.”
The most urgent implication of all this is, of course, that as Google gets faster and better able to fuel and satisfy our lust for knowledge, it seems to be robbing us of that which makes us most human, individually and together: our memories.