Internet Changing Brain from Storehouse to Index

Responding to the growing meme that the information overflow created by the Internet is making us dumber, Peter Suderman responds that,

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.

In other words, books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection. We won’t be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we’ll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.

That accords with my own experience.  There’s not much doubt that the Web has shortened my attention span; I want to get to the point now and be able to bypass things that don’t interest me.  I read far fewer books than I did just a few years ago even though I read much more content.  And, yes, I almost certainly store less trivia in my head than I once did.

It also occurs to me that this is the Americanization of intelligence.  As both a student and a teacher, I noticed that European, Asian, and African undergraduates seemed to have a much better storehouse of knowledge about a given topic, having memorized much more information about it, but that American students were better at processing given information and providing novel responses.  Whereas their system encouraged rote learning, ours emphasized understanding and deduction.  With Google largely obviating memorization, it stands to reason that what will be prized in the future is the ability to access information and do something with it.

Photo by Flickr user alles-schlumf, used under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    That’s funny… back in the late 60s, when I was in university, I had a professor (Carroll Quigley, at G’town U.) who told us that our jobs as thinkers was not to hold everything in our memories, but to be able to locate the information we needed quickly. Synthesis of disparate pieces of information was far more important than rote memorization.

    Quigley’s class was a two-semester required course in the School of Foreign Service. He had a flunk-rate of something north of 50%, so many of us had an opportunity to have that information drilled into our heads quite thoroughly!

  2. odograph says:

    Yeah, people index all the pro-CRA or anti-CRA arguments, and change their minds not one bit.

    (Actually, it’s not that bad but the temptation and opportunity to “index and silo” is there. It takes some extra effort to avoid it.)

  3. FranklinTest says:

    It also occurs to me that this is the Americanization of intelligence.

    Agreed, but the most efficient people will do both. For example, a mathematician is going to need to be able to derive any function on the fly without checking Wikipedia every ten minutes.

  4. Bithead says:

    Yeah, people index all the pro-CRA or anti-CRA arguments, and change their minds not one bit.

    Is change of itself a good thing… change for it’s own sake? I submit that in only half the cases would such change be desireable. Don’t judge the success of a conversation, or of a data tream, by the amount of change that occurs because of it.

    In any event, it’s a truism that “It’s not what you know, but if you know where to look it up”.

  5. odograph says:

    Is change of itself a good thing… change for it’s own sake?

    It depends ;-), of course. Someone gave me a bad AGW argument yesterday, and then tried the attack that I didn’t have an open mind, because I would not accept bad argument. In that case, “change” would have been the wrong course.

    It’s about how rational we can be, and how much we can introspect our motivations and biases.

    There are a few blogs that tackle this head on. I think I’ve recommended Overcoming Bias before.

    I make the effort, I’m willing to change my mind, even if slowly … for a good argument.

  6. rodney dill says:

    You don’t have to even be able to index stuff long term. (You do need to index is short term, or long enough for it to be useful)

    You only need to remember how to search for stuff, via a tool like Google. Index the information short term and use it, then forget it. Too much indexed information is as bad as too much overall information.

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    It’s funny to read this today when yesterday I watched the movie “The Edge”, in which Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin crash land in the wilderness and survive because although Hopkins has little experience in the outdoors, he does have knowledge of survival skills from reading books. I don’t think Google would help in the middle of nowhere…