The New Knowledge of The Digital Age


Knowledge is of two kinds: either we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.

The net opens access to an infinite library of easily and quickly retrievable information, accessible just by typing a few keywords. It functions as a sort of external hard drive, an outsourced memory we can plug in at any time.

Because of this, some have argued that the net dilutes the most traditional kind of knowledge: knowing a subject ourselves. It therefore makes our brains shallow, diminishing our intelligence and killing our inner memory.

But is this really true? Or should we evolve in our understanding of what brain power and memory are?

If you are in your thirties and forties, you probably remember that when you were a teenager you knew by heart the phone number of your closest friends. Since the introduction of digital directories, smartphones and services like plaxo there is no longer any reason to memorize numbers by heart. On the other hand, how many contacts do you have now compared to then thanks to the digital directories? How much more connected are you?

Yes, it’s true – the magic of the information age is not that it allow us to know more, but that it allows us to know less, in terms of depth of what we know, as mentioned by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, in his famous 2006 NY Times article “The Outsourced Brain.”

The positive side of this is that we are free to expand our awareness of subjects we did not have space, or availability, to explore before. Our memory now has a different function: it is an index, it remembers the existence of a subject and what are the best leads to find information on that subject.

You don’t need to memorize the content of a book, you just need to be aware of the existence of a book. Although this might make your middle school English teacher cringe, it is time to stop identifying ourselves with our memory and start seeing it as a flexible tool of the brain, which does not necessarily need to be contained within the brain it serves.

Your outsourced memory – the net – allows you to be aware of the existence of information you would never have come across before when you were limited to what your inner memory could hold. It allows you to increase the quantity of information that you can process because you do not always have to worry about memorizing every single detail of it, and for this same reason it allows you to use more brain power in linking concepts and applying them rather than remembering them.

It therefore empowers you to think and process information faster because your brain has the space to hold links to so much different information, and in doing so it expands your subjective time.

Does this mean that the internet is transforming our brain into a copy of itself, like Nicholas Carr states in his book The Shallows? Yes, probably, but how is this necessarily a bad thing, a “shallowing” of our brain, or is it instead an expansion of our brain, a leap forward in our evolution if we learn to use this technology consciously? If we learn to use it to our advantage?

Back in the analogue era, the difference between a deep brain and a shallow brain was the availability of information and the choice of whether to take in that information or not came second. Now that everything is available, the power is back to you: it is up to you to take responsibility of what content goes into your mind and how you use your outsourced memory.


Author: Stefania Lucchetti, Of Counsel at BonelliErede

Milan Area, Italy