The internet, cognitive enhancement, and the values of cognition

Minds and Machines 26 (4):389-407 (2016)
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This paper has two distinct but related goals: (1) to identify some of the potential consequences of the Internet for our cognitive abilities and (2) to suggest an approach to evaluate these consequences. I begin by outlining the Google effect, which (allegedly) shows that when we know information is available online, we put less effort into storing that information in the brain. Some argue that this strategy is adaptive because it frees up internal resources which can then be used for other cognitive tasks, whereas others argue that this is maladaptive because it makes us less knowledgeable. I argue that the currently available empirical evidence in cognitive psychology does not support strong conclusions about the negative effects of the Internet on memory. Before we can make value-judgements about the cognitive effects of the Internet, we need more robust and ecologically-valid evidence. Having sketched a more nuanced picture of the Google effect, I then argue that the value of our cognitive abilities is in part intrinsic and in part instrumental, that is, they are both valuable in themselves and determined by the socio-cultural context in which these cognitive abilities are utilised. Focussing on instrumental value, I argue that, in an information society such as ours, having the skills to efficiently navigate, evaluate, compare, and synthesize online information are (under most circumstances) more valuable than having a lot of facts stored in biological memory. This is so, partly because using the Internet as an external memory system has overall benefits for education, navigation, journalism, and academic scholarship.

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Richard Heersmink
Tilburg University


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