Do computers change the way we think?
What did you do the last time you wanted to check up on something? Did you ask around among people you know? Did you read it in a book - at home or in the library? Did you hunt around to find a specialist who could give you a definitive answer? Or did you type a couple of words into a search engine and see what came out?
Increasingly we take the latter option, and from a pure efficiency point of view it's not difficult to see why. Many of us have broadband now, which gives us fast internet access. Our computers might be in the living room, and may be switched on more than they are switched off. If we are out and about, we've mobile phones which can access the internet. We have constant access to powerful search engines.
So, it's a simple – and quick – matter to tap in a search term and see what comes out.
There are times when the internet can provide information it is very difficult or time consuming to get from other sources. Researching a medical condition is one example (though it's important to take care to go to reliable sources, avoid hype and treble check your facts if you do this). Reading multiple reviews of films or books that interest you is something else it's easier to research online. You most likely have others from your own personal experience.
But we also use computers to check up on mundane, everyday things that in earlier times we might have kept in our heads. How many telephone numbers and addresses of friends and relatives can you remember and how many do you rely on being stored in your phone?
As far as the internet is concerned, there is a strong case that it is simply continuing a situation that has been going on ever since the 'mass media' became a reality. Television news, for example, usually doesn't deliver in-depth analysis. It reports on what has happened. Even news analysis programmes don't go deep into the finer detail. If you want to get behind what's happening in areas of current affairs which are important to you, then you need to do your own research. So, the argument goes, modern media can act as a 'dumbing down' agent.
A counter-argument is that the internet is completely the opposite of television. Rather than simply 'feeding' you with information that you absorb in a one-way interaction, the internet opens things up and allows for a more explorative approach. For example, you can use the internet to research those deeper details of current affairs issues which concern or interest you. Many people find the internet invaluable as a research resource for all kinds of local, national and international topics.
These two arguments aren't mutually exclusive. The reality is that sometimes we use computers and the internet in particular as a one way source of information, at other times we use it more expansively.
There is another side to all this, and it is a neurological one. How do computers affect the ways in which our brains work?
There are research reports which suggest that we think differently if we have prolonged exposure to computers, that we lose our capacity for empathy with other people, that we live more in the day-to -day and stop thinking critically about things.
Even the former Chief Executive of Google, Eric Schmidt is on the record as having said , in 2010 at the World Economic Forum in Davos:
"As the world looks to these instantaneous devices... you spend less time reading all forms of literature, books, magazines and so forth... That probably has an effect on cognition, probably has an effect on reading."
In everyday life it can be difficult to assess a view like this. We just get on with things, rather than sitting back and wondering whether computers are changing the ways in which we think. But you could try doing a little test on yourself. Remember that question I asked earlier about the telephone numbers and addresses? Well, how many do you know by heart?
You can also find out about the effect of the web on young brains in Hajar Javaheri's blog.
Sandra Vogel is a technology journalist who has written for many web sites and magazines. She's written several books on computing. As well as technology she enjoys running, growing vegetables and playing the saxophone.