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Are we on stilts or crutches?

by The Concordian September 27, 2011
I recently upgraded the operating system on my computer, and with it came a fun new tool called “automatic spelling correction.” It took me some time to notice what was happening. When I would misspell a word, my computer automatically fixed it.
The only evidence was that familiar squiggly line but in dark blue, making it far less conspicuous than the standard red or green. At first I was elated; no more emails or chat messages where typos had done me the kind favor of placing foot in mouth, like when I said I’d spent my afternoon lunging, rather than lounging, in the park. But then I thought of the ramifications.
There has been a lot of griping about how spellcheck is ruining our generation’s knowledge of spelling and grammar. While I agree with some of this, I think it’s been overblown. In the past, if you made spelling errors, you’d have to check words individually and make corrections. Spellcheck just automated the searching process. With this new technology, however, I’m starting to agree that it’s becoming a problem.
When elderly doctors used to criticize their younger colleagues for looking up prescription doses, it’s archaic to expect people not to use new resources at their fingertips. We say this, however, from the position of having seen this technology develop. What will be the effects on the generation who will learn to write and spell with this technology? How much proper English will they know?
This is part of a wider trend of relying on tools instead of our brain to remember things for us. Psychologists call this “technical transactive memory,” and it includes computers and the Internet, but also paper and ink. Transactive memory has been integral to human development but, with the increasing mobility of the Internet, we’re becoming overdependent on it.
How many of your friends’ phone numbers could you recite off the top of your head? What would you do if you needed help and you only had access to a land line? Nowadays, if our phone’s not on us (and charged), we’re cut off.
A recent study conducted at Columbia University, published in the Aug. 5 issue of Science, experimented on the recall rate of subjects entering information into a computer. The group was asked to enter a variety of trivial facts into a computer, and were not told they would be asked to recall this in the future. Half were then told their entries were being deleted after entry, and the other half were told they were being saved.
The study found that those who were told the computer would save their information fared significantly poorer in recalling information as those told it would be erased.
“Because search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally,” the study indicated. “When we need it, we will look it up.”
I’m no neurologist, but I do know that your memory is a lot like a muscle – it benefits from exercise. The neural pathways you lay down when you commit things to memory are permanent. But the question remains. How will not needing to remember things affect us in the next 50 years? Should we be a little more wary about the types of things we defer responsibility for remembering? I think so.

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