Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why Bother To Remember Anything Anymore? Look It Up on Google!

I had other plans for this space today (more on being a “home archivist” and specifically on controlled vocabulary) but that can wait a day or two.  This topic just popped in for a visit and was too serendipitous to pass up.

I’ve been reading Joshua Foer’s new book called Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.  Foer, a science journalist who decided to compete in the U.S. Memory Championship a while back (you didn’t remember that there was such a thing, did you?), wrote about training for it.  A lot has to do with assigning really weird images to specific things you’re trying to remember – hence, the title, Moonwalking With Einstein.

Here’s a link to his YouTube video discussing his book and his experiences. The book is more than just his “training” experiences.  It is, in effect,  a "history" of what we call memory.  

Memory, it seems, is highly trainable.  According to Foer, it’s a learned skill, kind of like learning to play poker or bridge.  A millennium or so ago, people did it routinely and quite well.  Then Gutenberg came along with his movable type thingie and screwed everything up. 

Now, people could write stuff down and get it printed.  No more having to remember everything, like those songs and fables and the Norse Eddas and those interminably long Celtic genealogies. Books made memory - as an information storage system - almost obsolete. 

Libraries and archives became the cultural “memories” of our civilizations and librarians and archivists became the guardians, field guides and sherpas of all that stored information.

As long as you knew where to find it, you didn’t need to remember.

Then, today, the good folks over at Ars Technica, - which, by the way, is a great tekkie journal, - released an article by Kyle Niemeyer titled “Study: why bother to remember when you can just use Google?”  

Niemeyer draws your attention to a just-released study in Science Express that describes four interesting memory experiments.  The experiments strongly suggest that people with easy electronic access to many sources of information (the internet, experts, Google, etc.) develop what is called “transactive memory”.  In other words, they remember less, and instead, remember where to find stuff more.   

Moreover, if people think that there’s no easy access to particular bits of information or if something that’s on their computer is likely to be erased, they tend to remember it more readily than those things that they know they can easily look up.

Niemeyer’s observation:  our brains adapt to technology, not vice versa.  And that may not always be a good thing, especially when it’s so easy to look up facts in isolation.  After all, facts are not knowledge.

For example, there’s a huge amount of distance between simple fact recall from memory and complex understanding.  Part of understanding is related to seeing how things go together and being able to figure out why that is so. And one of the key elements to all that “figuring out” part is having a brain full of “working knowledge” all neatly stored in memory and ready for our instant, nearly intuitive recall.

Knowing that Albany is the capital of New York is look-uppable.  Knowing how that came to be and knowing why it’s not Kingston takes a bit more work and an understanding of New York State history. That’s the stuff that gets stored in our “working knowledge” memory, because if it wasn’t, we’d be forever looking stuff up.

That’s why memory is so intriguing.  It’s where we keep our personal stash of “working knowledge.”  All those tens of thousands of factoids we’ve collected over the years are interesting, but it’s our “working knowledge” that makes them useful.   The “working knowledge” is rather like the grammatical understanding of a new language that makes its vocabulary useful.  Owning a Swahili dictionary does not make you a native speaker of Kiswahili and won’t do much if you’re calling room service in a local hotel on the Kenyan coast.

Similarly, amassing a collection of names and dates for unsourced internet family trees does not make you a genealogist, even if you can recite most of those names and dates from memory. It helps to have an understanding of “family”, which is a whole lot more difficult to acquire and remember. 

And for the genealogist, it’s all about finding out all those facts that our ancestors stored in their working knowledge but just forgot to pass down to us. After all, there’s a very good chance that your “brick-wall” ancestor knew where he or she was born and who Mom and Dad were. 

Now, if we could only access some kind of "genetic memory"...

So, if time permits, take a look at this review of Foer’s book on memory here.  It appeared in Salon back in March.  It’s a good read and well worth the time you’ll spend with it.

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