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The Death of Memory July 28, 2008

Posted by Eyal Sivan in Self.
Tags: , , , , ,

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.




1. trev - August 9, 2008

Interesting. I often say that speed dial has ruined my memory, but in fact it has just re-allocated the resources.

I have noticed a shift in my own memory from rote fact to a more contextual style of recollection. I may not remember Bob’s phone number, but I do remember where I met Bob, what we talked about, and that I enjoyed his company and that our wives got along well.

I think memory is adaptive. We will allocate less mental resources to holding on to facts and phone numbers now that we have easy access through devices and search engines. We become filters for information rather than storage units.

2. jonZor - August 27, 2008

Great post, dude. I think you’re very right about this, in that our brains are no longer required to remember directions to a house or historical facts to sound interesting. In fact I don’t even need to remember connections between the historical facts that I look up, because at least a rudimentary synopsis is available on wikipedia, if I have the time to skim the entry.

I equate this memory loss to our forebears’ loss of the intimate knowledge of hunting and gathering (how to catch a gazelle, which berries and which mushrooms to eat) when they started farming and our more recent forebears’ loss of crop knowledge and animal husbandry when they started working in factories (hehe, I even just looked up hubandry, cause I couldn’t remember if I was using it correctly). The difference bwteen those cases and the present “rewiring” is that for our forebears, it happened over millennia in the case of the agricultural revolution, and over decades and centuries in the case of the industrial revolution. Nowadays, it will happen within our lifetime, and many of us, and certainly our children, will have to adapt to it on a very short timescale. Are our minds meant to adapt that fast? And how long before the next “shift”? A few more decades?

Now, I actually think that this death of memory is a bad thing, in the same sort of way that a GPS system is a poor substitute for our waning direction sense. I think the greatest loss in all this is our loss of understanding that comes with having to figure something out. I can GPS my directions to someone’s house or a store, but I am not improving my understanding of the layout of my city. Likewise, I can google hannibal (the last thing I googled for no apparent reason) and find out that he was a Carthaginian general who rode elephants over the Alps in an attempt to sack Rome, but I know nothing of the geopolitical situation of the Mediteranean at the time. Finding information in the old-school way involved a process of reading and understanding, of developing wisdom, learning “the mistakes of the past.” Essentially, insta-knowledge removes that step, so we have vast knowledge, with no wisdom. And “a little bit of knowledge is a little bit dangerous,…”

3. Eyal Sivan - September 3, 2008

trev, I think you are exactly right defining us as filters. What I find very interesting is that filters are empty in and of themselves. If we become nothing but filters, then what are we if the supplanted technology is removed?

jonZor, I agree that the powerlaw of change is bearing down on us fast, and no one knows where its direction lies. As far as whether it’s a good thing, whether we sacrifice wisdom, I think the inevitability of it makes this a moot point. Just as we unlearned hunting and gathering to make room for farming, we are now unlearning industrialization to make room for something else. Good or bad, its something new and unavoidable. Better to understand it than fight it.

4. Yossi Weihs - September 17, 2008

Very interesting post, Eyal. I think you have some of your terminology mixed up:

“Perhaps when stripped of our memories, we will become…”

I think that when augmented by the internet or global access to memory, we will no longer require that *explicit* recall of facts to be successful inhabitants of this world. However, every fact we consume becomes integrated into our non-explicit memories (I’m sure there is a better “industry” term for this) that are what allows us to thin-slide the world.

So my point is : we’re never going to be these master thin slicers using an *immediate* set of filters, as I think our filters are based on the sum of all memories that have flowed through them.

A great possible research agenda would be to try to determine how these filters assign weights to each memory incorporated into them, and how we could influence that to modify (not necessarily improve) our decision making. I could see advertisers loving this.

5. lisahistory - November 1, 2008

I’m sorry to come to this so late, Eyal — it feels somehow rude to be commenting on a post from August.

My comment is that writing itself has played the largest role in eradicating human memory. Pre-literate society, and even pre-literate people in our society, have amazing memories. One example I give my students is the ability to memorize an hours-long poem like Beowulf in the first hearing, around a campfire, while drinking. Once you learn to write, you can afford to forget. I don’t have to remember what I want to buy at the store, so long as I bring a written list. There is little in life we must, to survive, burn into our long-term memory. The “look it up on your cell phone” phenomenon is just an extension of looking it up in the encyclopedia at your host’s house when you go to play poker.

Learning how to look something up is the skill to promote in literate environments, not memorization. History students come to me “knowing” nothing, because they do not remember the many fact crammed into their heads in classes emphasizing memorization of historical facts. The fact themselves can be found not only on the internet, but in their textbook. My role is to teach them how to use those facts to interpret and analyze the human condition.

The affective domain you mention is of great concern to me, however. If people only look up facts to “be right”, rather than to use them productively, there are moral considerations as well as considerations for learning.


6. Eyal Sivan - January 6, 2009

Yossi, you point out an important duality. If our filters are based on experience, but we never really remember anything, then what are the filters based on? Tricky problem. Your research project sounds very interesting.

Lisa, no need to apologize for slowness. I’m probably the slowest blogger on the net. Here I am answering you two months later. The historical context you provide is fascinating and very well put. Interesting that you think the skill of “looking something up” should be emphasized in any literate society, not just digital ones. I wish someone had stressed that during my education (you just sorta pick it up). Your point about what you do being more important than what you know is well taken.

7. the art of war - January 10, 2010

the art of war…

…He wrote that . . ….

8. TauraTabWrels - April 1, 2011

Content help me to beget collection

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