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?


2 thoughts on “Research Today and Tomorrow”

  1. I like your point about digital technology’s effect on human memory. This is definitely something that I have experienced personally as well. I don’t think that search engines and related tools will necessarily limit resources. In fact, I think that researchers have more resources than ever before. I think that the way someone uses these tools is very important because, as you mentioned, parts of human processing power are removed and there is an expectation to find what one is looking for immediately. Like any research method individuals need to build good habits to dig deeper and find the best sources.

  2. I was thinking the same thing as you, particularly when I read “No Computer Legt Behind.” I do think that my memory for facts is weak compared to what I see in book characters from the 19th and earlier 20th centuries. I know that’s not reliable, but the way all the students in these books yammer off memorized dates and figures makes me think there is something different. But I don’t think it’s just because of the computer. Most of my high school teachers and college professors in history have specifically de-emphasized the importance of dates, in favor of understanding the process.
    As far as researchers who are increasingly directed and where to go and what to look for there by algorithms (if I’m interpreting what you’re saying correctly), I do think that the difficulties in original research will change. I don’t think they’ll get worse. After all, the content of archives and libraries are selective as well, and the matter of finding these archives and libraries before the internet was just as outside of the researcher’s control. We depended and we continue to depend on the help of other humans, who direct us to archives that they’ve heard of before, or who write articles on archives rich in a particular topic (articles compiled through their own experience as well as reaching out to even more humans), or who write general algorithms that direct us to the archive we need.

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