Google Just Took Another Small Step Toward Replacing Your Brain

Memories are for cavemen.

We've known for years that search engines like Google change how humans remember information -- so what happens when we use online services to keep track of where we've been in life?

Google on Tuesday announced a new update to its Maps program which will allow people to visualize all of the places they've visited, so long as they were carrying smartphones at the time. It's called "Your Timeline," and it's currently rolling out for Android devices and desktop browsers, meaning users should be able to access it over the next couple of days if they can't already. A spokeswoman for Google told The Huffington Post that there are "no specific plans" for iOS. 

Your Timeline displays the route you took to a given location, provided you had your location services turned on, as well as any pics you snapped that day, if you're a Google Photos user. You can also look through your history to see where you were on a given day, month or year.

For example, say you've taken a June vacation to New York City. You're staying at a Marriott in Manhattan. You wake up at 7 a.m., walk to a nearby Starbucks, happen to run into Susan Sarandon on the street, snap a selfie with her, take the subway to the Museum of Natural History, grab a burger at McDonald's nearby (you can do better, but you're starving) and taxi back to the hotel for a nap. If you've opted into the Your Timeline feature, you could, in theory, revisit that day years down the line, see exactly where you went, look at your smiling mug next to Sarandon's and regret once more that you didn't try a more adventurous lunch spot.

The feature is entirely opt-in right now, meaning you don't have to use it, and Google says it's "private and visible only to you." If you want, you can delete certain days -- maybe you have a bad break-up -- or your entire history.

That last part might raise an interesting question. Remember "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the Michel Gondry flick where Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet get a weird sci-fi procedure to forget their relationship ever happened? 

Memories disappear in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." (Source)


Well, deleting a "day" from your Google timeline isn't the same as scrubbing your brain, of course, but consider how our gadgets have already started to meld with our brains in weird ways. As Clive Thompson explored in his book Smarter Than You Think, our phones, with their easy access to search engines, have already become a kind of memory partner for us. Much the same as you'd ask your human partner about the name of "that movie we saw a few months ago," you "ask" your phone to quickly find information for you.  

Research has shown that relying on search engines for information leads us to remember fewer facts for ourselves. In practice, that might mean that you no longer bother to memorize state capitals or how many cups are in a quart, but it begs the question: What happens when we rely on much the same technology from Google to track where we've been in our own lives via location data and automatically tagged photographs? 

Of course, any freakouts about this particular software may not be totally warranted: iOS has offered similar, if shallower, tracking functionality for years, and many of us already manually catalogue our lives on the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Still, it's an interesting look at what our increasingly connected future may hold.