I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. More than once, as both child and adult, I’ve been gently (or not so gently) encouraged to “get my head out of the clouds” and focus on whatever practical task was at hand.
An article in the March 12 issue of Time magazine suggests that many of us are devoting more and more of our heads to the cloud, not in a dreamy way, but in a digital one.
And it’s not just the collection of computer hard drives that make up the nether “cloud” of contemporary computerspeak, but all of our cell phones, iPads and personal computers, too.
Why bother to remember something when you have a personal assistant in your pocket to remember it for you?
Betsy Sparrow, a professor at Columbia University, has published research (in the journal Science) indicating that embracing the Internet has led to measurable changes in the way our brains process information.
First, she found, when faced with a question for which we don’t know the answer, our first response is not to think about the subject of the question (like “How many countries have a uni-color flag?”), but where we can find the nearest web connection.
In other words, in response to a question about flags, we think about computers.
Second, if we’ve put information into a digital device and saved it, we’re much less likely to devote brain space to remembering it.
Assuming that birthdays or phone numbers or whatever will be available at the touch of a few keystrokes or finger-taps, we don’t bother to memorize them, which can leave us scarily adrift when the cell phone battery dies or the computer crashes.
Finally, Sparrow found that when dealing with new information, we’re more likely to remember where to find it online than to remember the information itself.
Delegation of “remembering” tasks isn’t really new – executives have long relied on secretaries to keep them apprised of schedules and other mundane information, and couples often have an informal system of who will remember birthdays and who will remember to change the oil.
The downside of putting so much of our heads in the cloud, Sparrow says – and beginning to do so at an early age – is that we can’t develop critical thinking skills without facts and concepts to work with – information stored in our thinking brain rather than on our personal data assistants.
The article did not explore this, but it occurs to me that some kinds of memory simply can’t be assigned to a machine.
A computer can store pictures and words, but it can’t store the complex joy of shared love, the sharp pang of loss, the comforting smells of home, the awestruck sense of having been in God’s presence…
That’s one of the reasons we hold to this season of Lent and the upcoming Holy Week, one of the reasons we celebrate Communion: it’s important to remember what God in Christ has done for us, and to reflect personally on what response that memory inspires.
Such remembering can’t be assigned to a hard drive – it has to be stored in the head and the heart.