With smartphones, tablets and other computers at the fingertips of more than three billion people worldwide, the way humans retrieve and retain information has undergone a dramatic shift over the last two decades.
It wasn’t so long ago that society relied on traditional means like encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases and other reference books to gather information and answer important questions.
But the rapid growth and evolution of digital technology has rendered many of these resources all but obsolete.
Christopher Schneider, an associate professor of sociology at Brandon University, said research has shown that quick and simple access to facts and figures has significantly altered the way human beings gather and retain information.
“There is evidence that our accessibility to information through sources like Google, Wikipedia, etc., has diminished our memories and power of recall,” said Schneider, a former assistant professor at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna.
“The rationale of scholars is that we can always retrieve the information quickly and easily, and so we’re less likely to retain it because the need is essentially no longer there.”
Schneider said many researchers suggest the ongoing changes in technology represent “one of the most important shifts in the human experience since the industrial revolution.”
He said the jury remains out on whether this massive shift towards technology will have positive or negative long-term effects on society.
To help explain the shift, Schneider refers to ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants,’ terms used by author Marc Prensky to describe the societal split in the use of technology.
The ‘natives’ are those people who grew up immersed in the digital age, while the ‘immigrants’—generally 35 to 40 years and older—are those who have had to adjust to advances in technology on the fly.
“We don’t fully understand the consequences of this shift, whether it’s good or bad or in between, but there’s a cultural clash happening,” said Schneider.
“Digital immigrants are those in charge of our dominant institutions, like Parliament, the RCMP, doctors and lawyers, so there’s some fear of natives and a bit of a divide there.
“The excitement comes from natives, the young people who are in schools, labs and tech companies who are designing a new digital world for us, making the globe a smaller place.
“One day, natives will occupy all those positions of authority.
“On the flip side, is technology going to make us more isolated than ever?” he added.
“Because we are in the middle of it right now, it remains to be seen whether it will be good or bad.”
In addition to changing the way people access information, Schneider said newer technologies have also had an impact on how we interact with others, including in social situations.
“Even things like parties, when you get together with a group of friends, your high school buddies, you reminisce, talk and tell stories…the dynamics of that has changed, too,” Schneider said.
“What happens now, when a subject comes up, is who can pull out their smartphone first and find the answer to the question.
“It’s interesting and difficult to say how it will impact us socially in the long-term.”
On the subjects of emotional growth and the general well-being of people, Schneider said the new digital age raises some interesting questions.
In some instances, the use of social media may be serving as a replacement for more traditional forms of human interaction.
“We know how important it is, from the beginning, the love and touch of a human being, to be held and cared for,” he said.
“With technology, there seems to be less and less face-to-face and touching.
“We can be social with Facebook and other digital media without human contact.
“Are we going to be more connected than ever and better informed, or are we going to be a nation of sociopaths.
“It’s scary and daunting and exciting all at the same time…and we just don’t know.”