Research Today and Tomorrow

A complaint often laid at the feet of newer generations – to some extent my own and more frequently those born after 2000 – is that simply do not remember facts any more. Instead, they rely heavily on the internet to find everything and retain nothing. I can personally attest that for some people, this is in fact the case. When I was younger and did not have ready access to a computer, my memory was much stronger than it is now. I rely heavily on electronic calendars, otherwise forgetting important appointments, and do not remember half of the historic dates and names which I once could have. To a certain degree, I believe that self-control and training to reign in this over-reliance is not only good but necessary.

However, our brains are electrical impulses, as are computers. Metaphorically, it is possible to see the growth of reliance on the internet and digitized data as a direct extension of our own mental storage capacity, as we have ready access to it whenever we need if there is a cell phone on hand, just as we have ready access to our memories. Digital scholarship, then, is a sort of hard drive our brains can tap into when our natural storage capacity is limited. In keeping with the metaphor, over-reliance on the digital mediums is saving everything to an external hard drive while keeping the computer itself almost bare with the exception of essential software functionalities and processing power.

One of the major flaws of this “external hard drive” model is oversight. Having access to information does not guarantee its accuracy, and without the ability to effectively research false information will lead to false impressions and misunderstandings. This is a sentiment expressed in Cohen and Rosenzweig’s “No Computer Left Behind” article, and also addressed by arguing that the “aggregate” amount of information is true and will override “in aggregate” the false websites. Given the current political climate and success of hate-based organizations during the electronic era I am not entirely sold on this explanation, however. And even if most people would find the correct information, is it right to leave the others behind adrift in back-channels of misinformation?

There is also the problem with my metaphor – I claim that processing power remains with the human brain and is not handled externally. Google, search engines, recommended tabs, etc. – these functionalities make research generally easier, but also remove elements of a human’s processing power and organizational agency in crafting the final work. Researchers are directed where to go, what to look for: does this limit the pool of resources any given person will look at when researching a topic? Will it make original research ever more difficult?