Columns

Steinman ’19: Unpacking unplugging

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, September 9, 2016

Some words of encouragement for those first-week jitters: If you’re reading this article, you’re already one of the most educated people ever to exist. That’s not because you go to Brown, or even because you can read, but because you have access to everything humanity has ever figured out just by typing into a search bar. We take internet access as a given, and it’s becoming one for more and more people around the globe. The number of internet users looks set to pass the 3.5 billion mark later this year, with 50 percent of the global population achieving connectivity in the months thereafter.

In the United States, where 88 percent of the population is online, the criticisms of constant connectivity are twofold: On the one hand, critique of social media as toxic to our relationships with other people is enormously widespread, mostly in the form of cross-generational finger-wagging. A Google autofill search (possibly the most meta thing I’ve ever done) for “social media is a …” returned “waste of time,” “distraction,” “lie,” “drug” and “disease.” But another way that constant connection permeates our lives is much less discussed, at least in my experience.

Google knows everything and is always there, making it the perfect backup memory. Our Google search histories are not just a catalog of our interests and desires but also of the random bits of information that enter and leave our minds in a constant flow. The name of that Hugh Grant movie, what time it is in Los Angeles, the restaurant you ate at just a few nights ago or the senator plagued by another scandal. Momentarily inaccessible, these tidbits might be gone forever, or they might come back after a minute of reflection, but usually we don’t give ourselves the chance to search our brains before turning to Google. When we outsource so much of our memory, we’re losing something else along the way. One famous “Science” magazine study found that people with access to search engines are less likely to remember pieces of trivia.

But it’s not the trivia that concerns me. I didn’t think about any of this until I spent five days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with Brown Outdoor Leadership Training, an outdoor program for incoming sophomores and transfers. None of us had our phones, and that was the last thing on our minds. But there were moments in our conversations when we would forget something, and we all sort of savored this strange impediment. We’d spent the week carrying 40-pound packs and scaling boulders, but when it came to something as simple as a search, we were stuck. We kept a “Google list,” mostly for the novelty of it. It included everything from what the percentages on a weather report mean to, ironically, the word for when something is on the tip of your tongue.

I didn’t think about the Google list much last week, but since coming back to campus I’ve reflected on how unique a situation like that has become. It took intention and remoteness to bring a group of intellectually curious college students to a place where we would talk about and try to figure out the things we couldn’t remember, rather than just whipping out a phone and stopping the conversation. It was gratifying, and it made me realize how many of the things we process every day are just part of a steady stream of noise that the internet delivers.

It’s impossible to recreate a situation like that here on campus, and the knowledge that the internet affords us is a precious gift, allowing us to find wonder in places and ideas that the generations before us could not access. For college students with a love of learning, there is no greater gift. But it’s worth viewing our access to near-infinite knowledge, some of it striking, much of it disposable, as a burden as well as a treasure. There is a jading effect produced by the instant gratification of a Google search, one I didn’t even recognize until it had been lifted. No one can or should forgo online searching entirely, but I know that the membrane between my real brain and my online one can be made much thicker. I’m making it a personal goal this year to cut down on the reflex-Google and to embrace the feeling of not knowing. At the very least, it might make me better at trivia.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu.

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