As We May Remember

First published January 12, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In his famous Atlantic Monthly essay “As We May Think,” published in July 1945, Vannevar Bush forecast a mechanized extension to our memory that he called a “memex”:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Last week, I asked you to ponder what our memories might become now that Google puts vast heaps of information just one click away. And ponder you did:

I have to ask, WHY do you state, “This throws a massive technological wrench into the machinery of our own memories,” inferring something negative??? Might this be a totally LIBERATING situation? – Rick Short, Indium Corporation

Perhaps, much like using dictionaries in grade school helped us to learn and remember new information, Google is doing the same? Each time we “google” and learn something new aren’t we actually adding to our knowledge base in some way? – Lester Bryant III

Finally, I ran across this. Our old friend Daniel Wegner (transactive memory) and colleagues Betsy Sparrow and Jenny Liu from Columbia University actually did research on this very topic this past year. It appears from the study that our brains are already adapting to having Internet search as a memory crutch. Participants were less likely to remember information they looked up online when they knew they could access it again at any time. Also, if they looked up information that they knew they could remember, they were less likely to remember where they found it. But if the information was determined to be difficult to remember, the participants were more likely to remember where they found it, so they could navigate there again.

The beautiful thing about our capacity to remember things is that it’s highly elastic. It’s not restricted to one type of information. It will naturally adapt to new challenges and requirements. As many rightly commented on last week’s column, the advent of Google may introduce an entirely new application of memory — one that unleashes our capabilities rather than restricts them. Let me give you an example.

If I had written last week’s column in 1987, before the age of Internet Search, I would have been very hesitant to use the references I did: the Transactive Memory Hypothesis of Daniel Wegner, and the scene from “Annie Hall.”  That’s because I couldn’t remember them that well. I knew (or thought I knew) what the general gist was, but I had to search them out to reacquaint myself with the specific details of each. I used Google in both cases, but I was already pretty sure that Wikipedia would have a good overview of transactive memory and that Youtube would have the clip in question. Sure enough, both those destinations topped the results that Google brought back. So, my search for transactive memory utilized my own transactive memorizations. The same was true, by the way, for my reference to Vannevar Bush at the opening of this column.

By knowing what type of information I was likely to find, and where I was likely to find it, I could check the references to ensure they were relevant and summarize what I quickly researched in order to make my point. All I had to do was remember high-level summations of concepts, rather than the level of detail required to use them in a meaningful manner.

One of my favorite concepts is the idea of consilience – literally, the “jumping together” of knowledge. I believe one of the greatest gifts of the digitization of information is the driving of consilience. We can now “graze” across multiple disciplines without having to dive too deep in any one, and pull together something useful — and occasionally amazing. Deep dives are now possible “on demand.” Might our memories adapt to become consilience orchestrators, able to quickly sift through the sum of our experience and gather together relevant scraps of memory to form the framework of new thoughts and approaches?

I hope so, because I find this potential quite amazing.

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