Researchers have found that when people use Google to answer questions about trivia that others pose, they gain an
elevated sense of their own knowledge. Daniel Wegner and Adrian Ward write in this month’s Scientific American
that the speed with which the Internet instantaneously returns screen results may even lead people to consider the vast amount of information on the Internet as an extension of their own personal memories.
In their study, the authors divided the participants into two groups: one group could use Google to answer trivia questions posed by testers and the other group answered the questions without access to the search engine. To make sure that the people without access had a sense of success similar to those who did use Google, the group without access to Google was told they were correct sometimes when they in fact had not given the right answer. Even with such controls, the group that used Google maintained the illusion that their own mental capacities were stronger based on their experience. The group without access to Google did not.
The authors point out a telling irony of this information age: we have a generation of people now who think they know more than previous generations, although their habitual use of the Internet for searching for information actually indicates that they may know even less about the world around them than their forebears. As is usual with this type of pattern of generalization, unfortunately, the authors end their article with a highly speculative set of musings: Perhaps, they posit, people become part of the “Intermind,” as they call the blending of individual minds with the Internet. And, liberated from the necessity of remembering mere facts, may give their minds more energy for creativity, allowing them to transcend the current limits of their memory and thought processes. Wegner and Ward conclude: “We are simply merging the self with something greater, forming a transactive partnership not just with other humans but with an information source more powerful than any the world has ever seen.” This kind of leap, from factual research to speculative visionary proclamations of major changes in our psychological experience and sense of self, are becoming more and more common with otherwise well-credentialed, well-respected writers. It reflects the need to believe that these changes based on our experience of highly technologized world are fundamental and indeed mind-altering in their nature.