Is Google replacing memory?

How old is Tony Bennett anyway?”

We were sitting in a condo on a ski hill with friends, counting down to the New Year, when the ageless Mr. Bennett appeared on TV. One of us wondered aloud about just how many new years he has personally ushered in.

In days gone by, the question would have just hung there. We would all offer our guesses but there would be no definitive resolution of the question. It would probably fill up a few minutes of conversation. If someone felt strongly about the topic, it might even start an argument. But, at the end of it all, there would be no definitive answer. There would only be opinions.

This was the way of the world. We were restricted to the knowledge we could each jam in our noggin. And if our opinion conflicted with another’s, all we could do is argue. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen set up the scenario perfectly. He and Diane Keaton are in a movie line. Behind them, an intellectual blowhard is in mid-stream pontification on everything from movie making of Fellini to the media theories of Marshall McLuhan. Finally, Allen can take it no more and asks the camera “What do you do with a guy like this?” The “guy” takes exception and explains to Allen that he teaches a course on McLuhan at Columbia. But Allen has the last laugh – literally. He pulls the real Marshall McLuhan out from behind a in-lobby display and McLuhan proceeds to intellectually eviscerate the Columbia professor.

“If only,” Allen sighs to the camera, “Life was actually like this.”

Well, now, some 35 years later, it may be. While we may not have Marshall McLuhan in our back pocket, we do have Google. And for many questions, Google is the final arbitrator. Opinions quickly give way to facts (or, at least, information presented as fact online.) No longer do we have to wonder how old Tony Bennett really is. Now, we can quickly check the answer.

If you stop to think about this, it has massive implications.

In 1985, Daniel Wegner proposed something along these lines when he introduced the hypothetical concept of transactive memory. An extension of “group mind,” transactive memory posits a type of meta-memory, where our own capacity to remember things is enhanced in a group by knowing whom in that group knows more than we do about any given topic.

In it’s simplest form, transactive memory is my knowing that my wife tends to remember birthdays and anniversaries but I remember when to pay our utility bills. It’s not that I can’t remember birthdays and my wife can’t remember to pay bills, it’s just that we don’t have to go to the extra effort if we know our partner has it covered.

If Wegner’s hypothesis is correct (and it certainly passes my own smell test) then transactive memory has been around for a long time. In fact, many believe that the acquisition of language, which allowed for the development of transactive memory and other aids to survival in our ancestral tribes, was probably responsible for the “Great Leap Forward” in our own evolution.

But with ubiquitous access to online knowledge, transactive memory takes on a whole new spin. Now, not only don’t we have to remember as much as we used to, we don’t even have to remember who else might have the answer. For much of what we need to know, it’s as simple as searching for it on our smartphone. Our search engine of choice does the heavy lifting for us. This throws a massive technological wrench into the machinery of our own memories. Much of what it was originally intended for may no longer be required. And this begs the question, “If we no longer have to remember stuff we can just look up online, what will we use our memory for?”

Something to ponder at the beginning of a new year.

Oh..and in case you’re wondering, Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born August 3, 1926, making him 85.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider January 5, 2012