The Death of Memory July 28, 2008Posted by Eyal Sivan in Self.
Tags: conway, gladwell, iphone, memory, sparknotes, tulving
Of all the ultra-hip commercials for the iconic iPhone, one stands out. Rather than a montage of features, it simply presents a scene: you and a friend have a bet. Thanks to the iPhone’s mobile Internet access, you no longer have to wait to settle the bet. Wherever you are, you can find out whatever you want to know, right now.
Far from science fiction, this scene is very quickly becoming the norm. MSN has released an entire ad campaign based on a similar idea, sporting the slogan “no one wants to be dumb.”
Marketing aside, these ads carry two very significant implications:
The first is: Knowing anything about anything is the natural state.
One would be hard-pressed to imagine a more bold assumption. These commercials actually propose that access to all human knowledge from anywhere is so trivial that it can be used to win five bucks. In other words, you should expect it. It should not impress you. It should be part of your every day life and affairs, used as naturally and effortlessly as your own memory.
Which brings us to the second implication: When you have access to everything, you don’t need to remember anything.
Education is experiencing this shift in very direct ways. Students across the globe thwart their professors with online study groups, downloaded essays, and sites like Spark Notes. For them, learning and memorizing is not something they do alone, in their own heads, as their teachers expect. It’s something they do connectively, with help from the machine. Now, instead of mulling over Shakespeare, they read a dozen summaries. Instead of remembering dates and places, they look them up on their phones. And the best part is, it’s always there if you ever forget. In fact, forgetfulness becomes an anachronism: what does it mean to forget, when remembering is so immediate and so easy. As easy as winning five bucks.
Modern students feel they don’t need to remember much. All you really need to remember is the fastest way to find out.
The same is as true for our personal memories as it is for general knowledge. The proliferation of capture devices, such as cell phone cameras, combined with cheap storage and bandwidth, provide effectively unlimited (and crystal clear) memory. Thanks to media servers, social Web applications and connected mobile devices, recalling these memories is just as easy.
Memory, in the traditional sense, is dying. In its place grows a sort of meta-memory, a mechanism to remember connections rather than end-points.
Faced with virtually unlimited choice of knowledge, there is just too much to know, too much to remember. This deluge of information forces us to mentally categorize, list and tag, such that we can easily remember many things as one, one thing as many, and jump from one thing to the next (and back again) as quickly as possible.
Inevitably, the same technologies that deliver this unlimited choice also extend our memories so we can adjust to the abundance. Suddenly you don’t have to know who starred in what movie, or the name of a statistic-leading athlete, or even what your friends are doing, as long as you know how to know.
For good or for ill, our overloaded memories are next in the long line of physical attributes to be amputated by technology. What makes memory unique is that we don’t know what we would be without it.
Many psychologists believe memory is at the heart of our personal identity. Martin Conway‘s experiments at Leeds University prove we don’t develop a sense of self until after age 5, when we begin to evolve our declarative or explicit memory. Until then we possess only what is known as procedural or implicit memory, processing every moment as it comes based on immediate sensory input, and doing so subconsciously. Young infants have no concept of a favorite toy, because they don’t yet have an explicit concept of themselves or of the past, and if they don’t exist and past events don’t exist they can’t possibly have a favorite toy.
Without any memory to act as a frame of reference, our personal identity dissolves into nothing.
On a grander scale, memory also defines our identity as a species. Accomplished neuroscientist Professor Endel Tulving theorized that our ability to perform mental time travel, or chronesthesia, is what makes us uniquely human (a trait sometimes called episodic memory, a sub-type of declarative memory). The ability to remember the what, where, and when of a given event amplifies our meager physical abilities, enabling us to effectively compete with stronger, faster, more physically gifted animals.
According to Tulving, memory is the trait that makes us who we are, not only as individuals but as a species. It allowed us to be successful hunters, inventors of language, and great civilization builders. When this trait is subsumed by technology, like so many physical traits before it, we will become a very different kind of animal.
Perhaps once relieved of the burden of memory, we will lose our obsession with the past and the future. Eastern philosophies, notably Buddhism and Taoism, have long advocated living in the present moment, abandoning the regrets of the past and the desires of the future as distractions from the path to enlightenment. Every point in time, say these philosophies, extends infinitely inwards and outwards simultaneously, such that all of eternity can be experienced in a single moment.
In his 2005 best-selling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell takes a more practical slant. He theorizes that many of the critical decisions we make are in fact made in the moment, in split seconds, in a process he calls thin-slicing. A key message of the book is that we (mostly) deny this process, preferring to believe we make decisions based on reasonable, critical analysis of our episodic memories. But as Gladwell demonstrates, we often make decisions without any explicit use of our memory; just a feeling or impression will do.
Perhaps when stripped of our memories, we will become master thin-slicers, evaluating every experience based on an intuitive and immediate set of personal filters, where impressions mean more than deductions.
Instead of training the memory to be a rigorous library, imagine instead striving for an amplified version of your child-like implicit memory. Where once you trusted facts and certainties, you now learn to trust and hone impulsive reactions, as you navigate through the perfect episodic memory afforded you by the machine.
In this future version of memory, we don’t so much remember things as feel things; or rather, feel our way through the spaces between those things.