Too many answers?
April 20, 2005 7:13 AM   Subscribe

When I have a question, I ask it. Simple enough, right? Are there any psychological/educational repercussions to having endless access to information? Are we becoming less intelligent because we are not seeking answers for ourselves, and instead relying on the vast database of knowledge on the Internet to answer questions that could be better answered via actual physical reasoning? It seems that I remember there being a "term" for this phenomenon - if it actually exists. Any help?

P.S. Isn't it kind of ironic that I'm asking this question? TEEHEE.
posted by nitsuj to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Pancake People? Spread wide and thin.

There a ton of good books on the subject. Check out Kevin Kelly's Out of Control or Neil Postman's Technopoly.

(On post -oopsie)
posted by exois at 7:28 AM on April 20, 2005

Before you jump to the internet, examine the use of calculators in middle schools.
posted by mischief at 7:42 AM on April 20, 2005

Why are you asking us? Just google it.
posted by orthogonality at 7:59 AM on April 20, 2005

Thanks, exois - that looks to be what I was searching for, though it's a different term I remember hearing/reading about.
posted by nitsuj at 8:04 AM on April 20, 2005

There is also Data Smog, by David Shenk, although that may be more about the glut of answers rather than having them at your fingertips.
posted by caitlinb at 8:31 AM on April 20, 2005

Maybe you're referring to a concept called 'transactive memory.' TM is an memory system developed in communications with others, whereby the knowledge is stored external to the individual. The pioneering researchers in TM were interested in how married couples seem to divide up the cognitive labor entailed in remembering things. The husband remembers things in category A and the husband remembers things in category B. If the husband needs to know something from category A (when is our anniversary???), he knows that he can simply ask the wife. Some TM theorists argue that such an external memory system doesn't make you less intelligent (so, they would answer NO to your question above). Instead, these researchers argue that TM has the effect of enabling the individual to become more of an expert (in his or her own area of expertise) since he/she can rely on others for the storage and retrieval of certain kinds of knowledge, and is therefore free to focus his/her finite cognitive resources to deeply develop his/her own expertise.
posted by found missing at 9:04 AM on April 20, 2005

Funny, my girlfriend is just wondering if she should go and write the exam for a course she is auditing...

I was thinking that the best way to learn the material is to *really try* to answer the question for yourself (using the text book too, if you like) and then start asking questions only after exerting some effort to answer for yourself. I personally find that I am not easily motivated to try hard when I have someone beside me to ask, so I thought sitting in the exam for 2 or 3 hours might be a good way to kick start the process. (and before you say "you should know the material before you start to write the exam"... Well, go ahead and say it if you want to, but it is a flawed assertion.)

found missing, that is great stuff. It occurs to me that it only works if you can be certain that the external knowledge is reliable. It could work great for certain things, but terribly for others...
posted by Chuckles at 9:18 AM on April 20, 2005

Chuckles, that's a good observation. In fact, there are many reasons why transactive memory would fail to develop properly (including the reason you suggest); or, if it does develop properly, why it would be inefficient or ineffective for a given situation.
posted by found missing at 9:38 AM on April 20, 2005

For a while, I was printing out maybe 40 items a day and reading them on the NYC subway going home, in the evening and coming to work.

I realized that I knew more than I needed to know about current events and wasn't reading enough literature.

I've cut way back and have gotten through lots of classics, which I love, and I think I'm thinking better.

Of course, I'm slipping, or otherwise I probably wouldn't be on Ask MetaFilter, but I think it's important to read good writing about larger ideas than I find while surfing.
posted by KRS at 10:08 AM on April 20, 2005

Well, there's the story that Albert Einstein didn't know his own phone number because he didn't want to waste his memory with information that could be looked up in a book.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:54 AM on April 20, 2005

I think there's a difference between knowledge and true understanding. All you can get from reading/watching/etc. is a storehouse of facts. These facts can be really simple or they can be really sophisticated (the "facts," as I'm calling them, can be whole systems, as you get from reading philosophy), but they can only take you so far.

True understanding only comes when you use an idea in a new context, or when you bend an idea, or when you combine two ideas to make something new. You CAN'T do this any other way then through work (work CAN be purely intellectual work -- i.e. thinking about things).

Example: I can learn the function of every button and menu item in Photoshop by reading a manual. But I need to do actual work to paint a picture.

Still, I love the web. I'm not belittling fact-aquisition: I just think it's only part of the equation. My main worry for web-surfers is that they aren't feeding all their senses. For instance, the web isn't tactile. And it's not 3D (except in rare cases -- and those only virtual). After surfing and reading and watching for weeks on end, it's extraordinary to play with a little bit of clay, make something, and turn it around to look at all its sides. It feels like drinking water after being lost in the desert.
posted by grumblebee at 11:28 AM on April 20, 2005

Although not a direct answer to your question, see also, The Paradox of Choice, where the author argues that the number of decisions that we have to make daily which require us to gather and collect information is not making us happier or wisier, but rather paralyzes us and restricts us from getting shit done and being happy about the decisions we've made..
posted by picklebird at 12:13 PM on April 20, 2005

The husband remembers things in category A and the [wife] remembers things in category B.

That's one reason, psychologists say, for the stress following a break-up. Well, that and the soul-crushing realization that nobody will love you like that again.
posted by NickDouglas at 2:44 PM on April 20, 2005

Possibly information fatigue syndrome?

I've been pondering this in varying degrees since I read Theodore Roszak's excellent 1985 book The Cult of Information, which, although only partly dealing with your issue, I recommend (good luck finding a copy).

It does seem to me that the incredible ease with which information is now available to us has contributed in part to a certain sort of attention deficit syndrome, particularly in some younger people. There seems to be a greater impatience with prolonged, critical thinking or deductive and inductive reasoning. I don't have any meaningful statistics or data to back that up, I'd stress. It's just a subjective impression.
posted by Decani at 3:00 PM on April 20, 2005

Actually, on reflection I don't think that's what you're talking about, is it? I think what you're talking about is laziness!
posted by Decani at 3:03 PM on April 20, 2005

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