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Externalising Our Memory Hardware

According to some researchers, the Internet is making us into superficial thinkers with scattered thoughts unable to concentrate or focus.


Externalising Our Memory Hardware

“Over the last few millennial, we've invented a series of technologies … that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories,” writes Joshua Foer in Moonwalking with Einstein: the Art and Science of Remembering Everything, his recently released book, which even has Bill Gates writing reviews on it. Foer explores this concept of our memories being externalised by technologies and asks if this means we are condition ourselves to remember less.

Books changed the way we remember, so then to what degree has the Internet done the same? Foer points out that in the medieval times very few copies of any book existed. Thus when someone read such a book, they were in a way forced to remember it almost word for word as it would be difficult for them to have access to said book, and the knowledge it contained, again.

Jump a few hundred years later to the era of mass production vis-à-vis books and one can now simply consult ones local library, pull a book of the shelf and scan the index or pages of contents to relocate any gobbet of knowledge. This does not necessarily mean that books are bad for reducing our need to remember. In fact, they have made our lives easier. And lest we forget, books often shape us in some way and thus stay with us; even if it’s only the sentiments and emotions of the story rather than the facts. Fast forward to twenty years ago with the introduction of the World Wide Web and everything changed.

Well maybe not everything. The Internet being as accessible as it is – on almost all of our laptops, mobile phones, iPads and tablets amongst other things – has given as immediate access to a vast amount of information. In addition, we are connected with people all over the world with whom we can confer our thoughts and findings on almost anything. Now the question is, how does all this stored information, a literal external memory storage, affect us?

According to some researchers the Internet is making us into superficial thinkers with scattered thoughts unable to concentrate or focus without the constant stream of knowledge being presented in bite size portions. Some of their studies have shown that people will remember more when they believe they won’t have access to the same information later but will be in need of it, than if they think they’ll be able to look it up at a later stage. This is seen in exercises and memory games. According to Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel, a renowned neuroscientist, it is only when we consciously and deliberately absorb new information that we are able to associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well-established in memory.”

Linking new information to already established information is how we strength and create neuro-connections and brain maps which ultimately help us to remember. Others have used this largely accept fact on neuro-connections to argue that every new piece of information that we connect to a pre-existing neuro-pathway strengthens those cognitive skills and pathways at the expense of others. This phenomenon is known as brain mapping thus allowing neuro-plasticity to take place in the brain. Through this, certain memories and skills are weakened and others strengthened.

What concerns experts in surrounding fields is that this insistence on quick snippy bits of knowledge is becoming our dominant approach to thought production. The Internet is essentially making us want flashcard knowledge rather than wells. Hence our ability to think critically, deeply, reflexively and mindfully is altered as we tend to spend less time actively engaging in those actions. Whether it is altered negatively or positively is the larger debate at hand. Some argue that the Internet, like any other source of knowledge, does not inhibit or enhance the degree to which we engage with the knowledge, while others argue that the constant stimuli given by the Internet only trains us in the art of rapid decision making.

Technology and the Internet have changed the ways in which we approach and think about knowledge. The problems which that may cause do not simply stop when we switch off the T.V., turn off our computers or put down our mobile phones. Yet when the advancements of books occurred and we started relying on the memory of others as well as our own for remembering the trivial we never worried about the validity of the information others provided. The same cannot be said for the Internet even though a person’s memory is no more valid than that found on the Internet.

As Foer says, “Our culture is an edifice built of externalised memories.” And as we grow more and more into an interconnection of systems we shall remember less and less information because we will remember more and more where to find it. But in the same way that a new book or significant moments in our lives stay with us, I believe our memories and perception of knowledge will remain a part of us. All we need to do is navigate the murky waters of technology and knowledge production and remember that at times the best source of information is ancestral.

First published in the Cape Town Globalist (November 2014)