This paper has two distinct but related goals: (1) to identify some of the potential consequences of the Internet for our cognitive abilities and (2) to suggest an approach to evaluate these consequences. I begin by outlining the Google effect, which (allegedly) shows that when we know information is available online, we put less effort into storing that information in the brain. Some argue that this strategy is adaptive because it frees up internal resources which can then be used for other cognitive tasks, whereas others argue that this is maladaptive because it makes us less knowledgeable. I argue that the currently available empirical evidence in cognitive psychology does not support strong conclusions about the negative effects of the Internet on memory. Before we can make value-judgements about the cognitive effects of the Internet, we need more robust and ecologically-valid evidence. Having sketched a more nuanced picture of the Google effect, I then argue that the value of our cognitive abilities is in part intrinsic and in part instrumental, that is, they are both valuable in themselves and determined by the socio-cultural context in which these cognitive abilities are utilised. Focussing on instrumental value, I argue that, in an information society such as ours, having the skills to efficiently navigate, evaluate, compare, and synthesize online information are (under most circumstances) more valuable than having a lot of facts stored in biological memory. This is so, partly because using the Internet as an external memory system has overall benefits for education, navigation, journalism, and academic scholarship.
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Cognitive technologies can be characterised as physical objects that are used to aid humans in performing cognitive tasks (Clark 1997; Brey 2005; Heersmink 2016). Examples include maps, diagrams, models, checklists, calendars, timetables, calculators, computer systems, and many other artifacts. The informational properties and functionalities of such artifacts are crucial for performing a wide range of cognitive tasks, including navigating, calculating, planning, remembering, decision-making, and reasoning.
Although these are available online and thus remediated, most of these also still exist independently of the Web, that is, in their original, un-remediated form.
Floridi (2014) has argued that contemporary humans are “inforgs”, that is, informational organisms who live in an “infosphere”, an ecosystem of information. This infosphere is largely constituted by the Internet.
Most digital texts have this functionality, so it is not unique to online information.
This view or design paradigm in computer science is also referred as “ubiquitous computing” or “ambient intelligence”.
To be fair, this quote is from Scientific American, which is a popular science outlet and may therefore invite less nuanced statements.
Dourish (2001) argues that design paradigms in computer science should focus more on our embodied interactions with computer systems. The more computer interfaces mimic the real world, the more intuitive they are to use. This is partly so because our procedural memory systems have evolved to interact with objects and structures in the real world.
These are by no means the only three cognitive issues associated with the Internet, but I do think they cover a substantial part. Another issue is that reading hypertext is more distracting than reading analogue text. The increased demands on decision-making and visual processing when reading hypertext impair reading performance (DeStefano and LeFevre 2007). This may, in turn, effect memory performance as well.
But perhaps each human agent is able to subjectively determine which cognitive skill is more intrinsically valuable to the agent. For example, one person may find being able to solve Sudoku puzzles highly intrinsically valuable, whereas another person experiences little value in solving Sudokus. So, the intrinsic value of cognitive skills is subjective.
Recall that the Web was initially invented to enhance academic scholarship (mainly in astronomy) by making it easier to store and communicate large amounts of information. Currently, that is just one of the many applications.
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I wish to thank Neil Levy for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Ideas in this paper have been presented at the Third International Conference on Interactivity, Language and Cognition in London; the International Association of Philosophy and Computing Conference in Ferrara; and at a departmental seminar at the philosophy department of Macquarie University. I would like the audiences for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. Lastly, I want to thank the two anonymous reviewers, whose comments significantly improved the article.
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Heersmink, R. The Internet, Cognitive Enhancement, and the Values of Cognition. Minds & Machines 26, 389–407 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11023-016-9404-3
- Google effect
- External memory
- Cognitive enhancement
- Cognitive technology
- Values and information technology
- Information ethics