Outsourcing the Faculty of Memory

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There was an interesting report on the BBC News site a while back telling of a study that suggests the internet is changing the way people use their memories. Apparently, people are increasingly treating the internet as a kind of external hard drive to store facts rather than keeping them in their own heads.

The study showed this in several ways. It found evidence (a) that when people are faced with difficult questions, they are likely to think of the internet as the place to go to answer them, (b) that people remember facts better if they know they won’t subsequently have access to reference material to remind them, and (c) that people who have the chance to store information on a computer are better at remembering where they stored it than the actual content.

The term the researchers were using for this phenomenon is ‘transactive memory’, which Betsy Sparrow defined as ‘an idea that there are external memory sources - really storage places that exist in other people’. Indeed, the starting point for the concept was nothing to do with technology, but a study that showed how long-term couples rely on each other’s memories.

(There are jokes about this kind of thing.)

Now, this is all rather interesting, but what struck me is that while the internet may be inflecting how we access these outside data-banks in all kinds of useful and broadening ways, this change is peanuts compared to that earlier innovation in human history of literacy. The difference between turning to Google to find something out and going to a good library is basically one of speed and convenience. (I write as someone who did a PhD not only before Google, but largely before even Yahoo. And yes I know that Yahoo! has an exclamation mark in it, but I didn’t want one at the end of that sentence.)

But the difference between having to keep all of something in your head and being able to use a reference book or an aide-memoire is much more significant. And you particularly notice it in the hand-over from short-term to longer-term memory.

If I’m writing a short article and I need to check a fact, I can go and find it, then write it into the article, and it never needs to go into long-term storage. So long as I remember that the fact exists and is susceptible to being found, I don’t need to hold it in my head. But if I’m preparing material for a presentation where people might be asking me questions, I need to have a much deeper and more permanent relationship with the content, since on that occasion my brain will be acting as the primary information depository. But even then I may not retain the detail in the long term. The reason academics line their offices with books is not just to subsidise their home bookshelf budget, but to store notions that their students might want to ask about without having to carry it all round in their own heads all the time.

You notice this in the use of sheet music in choral traditions too. Choirs that perform from the score learn faster and can maintain more music than choirs that have to hold it all in their heads. They need to know the music inasmuch as they need to understand it, and have practised singing it so they can do it convincingly and without getting surprised by what’s over the page or getting lost. But they don’t have to hold all the detail in their heads, they just need to be sufficiently familiar with it with it to be able to glance down at the right bit of the page in time to pick it up when needed.

I guess the key thing that this study has made me realise goes back even before the effects of literacy on human culture, though. The notion of ‘transactive memory’ is about the social distribution of information, and is what makes it possible for people to specialise. It means I can make myself useful by developing expertise in how to help people sing together in groups very effectively, and don’t have to worry my pretty little head about how to service my central heating system or grow my own potatoes.

Compared to the benefits that the social distribution of information offers, even literacy pales into a simple extension of this primary attribute. What it does is allow you access to many more people’s ideas at once, at a time and place that is convenient to you (whether they are available or not), and allows you to get some control over the repeat accessibility of that information. (Books don’t wander off for a coffee like other people do.)

I’m not knocking the extra level of convenience, speed and precision that the internet provides. One time, while writing my second book, I checked a reference in my first book via Google books rather than walking downstairs to flick through a printed copy. (I don’t know if I’m pleased or ashamed about this.) The internet is good stuff, and it is changing the way we think. But in the context of how we’ve evolved as a communicative and intelligent species, it’s just continuing long-established processes onto their next step.

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