Monday, May 9, 2011

Outsourcing our Brains?

As it becomes more socially acceptable to halt a conversation to look something up on a smartphone, I wonder what is happening to our memories. Memorization of everyday facts doesn't seem to get a lot of respect these days, compared to a person with an iPhone.

Outsourcing our memories to machines is unlikely to stop anytime soon, but it will be interesting to see how other professions besides librarianship change in the coming years. Would you trust a physician who relies on an electronic device to remember standard diagnoses and dosages, for example? What about a researcher who can't spell? Reference librarians hardly do any work that involves looking up routine facts; increasingly we have shifted to assist more with informational processes related to comprehension, analysis, and integration.

Even if computers can beat us in the memory arena, the skill is still a measure of human intelligence. Unfortunately this is only obvious when when we are offline and disconnected, which is a decreasing amount of the time. But what makes us smarter than the machines we have created? We tend to change what we mean by intelligence in order to feel smarter than the machines, but there is less and less that machines don't 'know.' Here I'm echoing thoughts from a recent New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik:

"We have been outsourcing our intelligence, and our humanity, to machines for centuries. They have long been faster, bigger, tougher, more deadly. Now they are much quicker at calculation and infinitely more adept at memory than we have ever been. And so now we decide that memory and calculation are not really part of mind. ... We place the communicative element of language above the propositional and argumentative element, not because it matters more but because it's all that's left to us." [my bold]

Or maybe this is all wrong, and it's most accurate to say that our memories have been technologically enhanced in order to compensate for the increased quantity and availability of digital information. Machines may assist us, but we will continue to rely on our analog brains for the type of information -- even dry, fact-based information -- that we use every day at work and home. This is still quicker, at least until we embed microchips in our heads. But memorizing the type of information we don't access regularly, just for the sake of it, is less and less necessary. Fair enough?


  1. I wrote a lengthy response to this. It involved Plato and xkcd. But Blogger lost it. Sigh. Here are the links, though...

  2. Darn blogger. On the other hand, "in the garden of letters he will sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement"

    Thanks for the links :-)

  3. Like any other tool, the smartphone has found its place. In this case, it is the recovery of minutiae. Thoughts and things that would have been left to the side are now generally discoverable, especially when it comes to the pop culture trivia that manages to grind down different conversations.

    If anything, I don't think it will outsource memory (honestly, I don't need to know the entire cast of Happy Days) so much as it will outsource trivia knowledge. We'll still remember what is important and daily, but the other stuff will get left to quick searches. Hopefully, it will means better searching behaviors as well.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Andy! I wish it was just Happy Days minutiae that I forget. But in the last few days it's been the year Pearl Harbor was bombed [in conversation], the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni [in the car listening to news], and how to spell Abu Dhabi [writing an email - google saved me that time].

    Maybe we should get some memory games for the library -- it's finals week anyway :-)

  5. Olivia - reading this blog entry brought me back to a story some months back about superior autobiographical memory. You can check it out at

    No computer can replace memories of experiences whether they are good or bad

  6. Thanks Bruce; the people in that article are amazing. I think what's so impressive is that they seem to do it so naturally, with no training or serious intention.

    For me, it's definitely more that "a healthy dose of forgetting is crucial to our ability to think."