More on Search, Transactive Memory and the Elastic Mind

First published January 31, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Thomas Young was the last person who knew everything. Or, at least, that’s Andrew Robinson’s claim in his book of the same title. Whether you agree or not, the accomplishments of this 19th century Quaker were certainly impressive. In contradiction to Newton, he proposed the wave theory of light, furthered our understanding of the mechanics of the eye, helped invent Egyptology and decipher the Rosetta stone, created a measure of elasticity in engineering, was an accomplished physician, created a technique for tuning keyboard instruments, compared 400 languages, coined the term Indo-European and still had time to pioneer developments in carpentry and life insurance. Thomas Young was the human Google of his age.

Today, our world is much more complex. There’s too much knowledge to store in just one mind. So, we tend to find other places to keep it for when we need it. Hence the concept of transactive memory, which I touched on last week.

Misty, Watercolored Memories

We have different methods for storing different types of memories. The way we remember our 21st birthday (if we still remember it at all) is different than the way we remember our phone number. Then there’s the way we remember how to ride a bike, or what Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” sounds like.

And some people are better at remembering certain types of things than others. That’s why we’ve adapted to extend our memory capabilities by using transactive memory. We rely on others to store memories that we might need at some point. Our wives remember birthdays. Our kids remember how to program our smart phone. Our co-worker remembers how to run the virus scan on our computer. We don’t have to remember all these things; all we have to remember is who does.

The Transactive Web

But what about computers, and, by extension, the Internet? What about search? Doesn’t this take transactive memory to a level never thought of before? Even the reduced work load of remembering who remembers what is significantly more trouble than just being able to instantly recall information with a well-placed query. We dump the details of our life on a hard drive somewhere, and search for it when we need it. Even if we’re looking for something we didn’t know we needed, like the recipe for haggis (how many of you celebrated Robbie Burns Day last Friday?) we can find it when we needed it. And we don’t have to remember it, because we know it will be there come next Jan. 25.

The Adaptive Brain

And that brings us to the second point I raised last week, that of neurological plasticity. Our brain prunes itself, getting rid of capacities we really don’t need anymore, and strengthening those that we do. This happens to the greatest extent in the first few decades of our lives, but it is a lifelong process. I am forcibly reminded of this when my 14-year-old daughter asks me for help with her algebra homework. At one point in my life, I knew this stuff. But most of those neurons have long since disappeared. To offer any help at all, I have to relearn what I once knew, building new neural pathways.

So, as we have to worry less about remembering certain things, like facts, dates, phone numbers and addresses, will our semantic memory capabilities, the place we store these things, become less exercised and therefore, pruned out of the way? And in its place, will we develop greater skills in navigating online spaces?

It’s really not a question, it’s already happening. We can see the difference in the generational abilities in the online space, or when our kids kick our virtual butts in a Wii showdown. But we’re still in a place where we’re balanced on the cusp between the pre- and post-digital world. We still have a foot in each realm. Let’s fast-forward a generation or two and see which capabilities that seem so essential to us today have disappeared. And which new talents, unfathomable to us today, have taken their place.

Exponential Technological Advances

Now, obviously, this is nothing new. We don’t need to remember how to shoe a horse, and our great-grandfather would be amazed (and possibly aghast) at a trip on a California freeway. Change has always happened, and humans have always adapted. But there’s something different now. Raymond Kurzweil calls it The Law of Accelerating Returns. The need to adapt to leaping technological advance is getting more and more demanding. Technological growth is exponential. At today’s rate, we experience 20,000 years of progress in a century. In the year 2045, Kurzweil believes we’ll hit a point where machines become smarter than humans. Could the human mind, which is amazing in its adaptability, simply be outstripped by technology?

One last thought. If you believe in evolution (as I do) humans have evolved as the preeminent species through a long line of trial and error, with our environment as the ultimate judge of genetic worthiness. The problem is that evolution is a long, slow process. Our evolutionary environment, the one we’ve adapted to excel in, is a hunter-gatherer society several thousand years past. Evolution never equipped us to function in the world we live in, except in one regard. It equipped us with an adaptable mind that allows self-awareness. And even that is inextricably tied to our human nature. The human mind is a wonderful thing, but unfortunately, it doesn’t benefit from Moore’s Law.

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