Despite being an old-fashioned guy I have a modern mind. Part of that mind resides in my head. Part of it does not. The part that resides in my brain works pretty much like minds have always worked, muddling its way through life, thinking, remembering, forgetting, getting on with all those things that help us cope with life. I include forgetting because forgetting is every bit as important as remembering. There’s plenty in this life I’m glad I can’t remember.
The other part of my mind exists in an assortment of metal and plastic boxes. I’m referring, of course, to mobile phones, computers and associated peripherals. I have no idea what my daughter’s phone number is or indeed her e-mail address; the aforementioned devices remember them for me.
The subject matter of this post was suggested to me by a friend. She’d read about a competition to write an essay and thought it might be down my street. So she e-mailed me the details. I didn’t have time to deal with it at the time and so I dragged the PDF attachment from her e-mail onto my desktop and summarily forgot about it. No, ‘forgot’ is not the right word – I didn’t even try to remember it. That’s the crucial point here, I didn’t try. I left it with the machine.
Of course that’s no different from what happened in the old days, her letter would have arrived and I would have tossed it into an in-tray to be actioned later. I’m simply making use of the latest technology.
The same goes for learning. At school we studied the poetry of Wilfred Owen. I can remember the names of a few, well two, ‘Futility’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ but that’s about it. I may have a copy of them in my office but I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that I can access the texts of both poems in seconds:
Results 1 - 10 of about 168,000 for ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. (0.25 seconds)
Wasn’t that easy?
This doesn’t mean that I don’t use my memory at all. What it means is that I treat it more like an index than an encyclopaedia.
Like I said, that was an easy one. Not all are. But I’ve become quite adept at knowing how to strip away irrelevant offerings by Google and get close to what I’m looking for. It’s a learned technique no different to the memory course my dad took when I was a boy.
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John Sutton’s article in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy on the subject of memory begins with an attempt at a definition:
‘Memory’ labels a diverse set of cognitive capacities by which we retain information and reconstruct past experiences, usually for present purposes. Memory is one of the most important ways by which our histories animate our current actions and experiences. Most notably, the human ability to conjure up long-gone but specific episodes of our lives is both familiar and puzzling, and is a key aspect of personal identity. Memory seems to be a source of knowledge. We remember experiences and events which are not happening now, so memory differs from perception. We remember events which really happened, so memory is unlike pure imagination. Yet, in practice, there can be close interactions between remembering, perceiving, and imagining. Remembering is often suffused with emotion, and is closely involved in both extended affective states such as love and grief, and socially significant practices such as promising and commemorating. It is essential for much reasoning and decision-making, both individual and collective. It is connected in obscure ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. Much of our moral and social life depends on the peculiar ways in which we are embedded in time. Memory goes wrong in mundane and minor, or in dramatic and disastrous ways.
I like the last line especially. One of the main objections I can imagine people having to relying on external means is that things can go wrong. But things can always go wrong. Keeping all one’s eggs in a single basket may not be wrong but it is stupid. I have copies of my writing on five different computers, two external hard drives and online. The online version (in Dropbox which I recommend you check out) also copies any changes I make onto two of my home computers. Plus I have hard copies of the lot. What do I need to remember? Just where to look.
It’s a trade-off of course, everything is, but when it comes to something that should be fixed in stone why rely on a storage medium where the content gets ‘tainted’ by emotions and imaginings. Better to have a container where the data can be hermetically sealed, frozen in time, reviewed, refined, and reformatted as necessary.
Memory aids go back years although I can’t ever remember tying a knot in a hankie (or as Carrie remembers, tying a string around a finger). I remember the colours of the rainbow with the mnemonic “Richard of York gave battle in vein” and the lines of the treble clef with “Every good boy deserves favour” and there are dozens of similar devices kicking around.
Results 1 - 10 of about 936,000 for mnemonics [definition]. (0.23 seconds)
What about “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” to remember how to use a screwdriver? (Seriously, who can’t use a screwdriver?) I’ve mentioned before how my father taught himself to remember things using peg words. It’s an artificial technique. Why not simply remember the things he wanted to remember? Because of the limitations of the human memory. It needs a leg up. It’s great at remembering but lousy when it comes to recalling the stuff. I could stick post-its all over the house but if you have a house full of post-its how do you know which ones take priority?
The thing about our brains is that they have a very handy interface. They’re sealed inside our skulls and so go with us wherever we are. You still have to use that brain to remember to pick up your mobile phone or your laptop. Yes, but what’s the big deal? I’ve been remembering to put on my watch since I was five. That’s the easy bit. Our brains like repetitive acts. I don’t even think about it at night. I bend over the back of the TV to turn the power off.
Our brain is good at simple tasks. I know how addition works. So I don’t need to remember that 1+1=2 and 1+2=3 and 1+3=4. I remember the one thing: how to add. Online what do I need to trust to my brain? My name (can cope with that), my e-mail address, username and password. I’ve always used easy to remember passwords, things with shapes and meanings like “nearme”. Try typing it. After a few goes your hands will just remember the shape of the password. That’s not one of mine by the way. I’ve long since incorporated numbers, usually replacing vowels, e.g. “n3arm3”.
I may have a modern mind but as I’ve said I’m also a bit of an old-fashioned guy. I think if a guy is an artist he shouldn’t have a team of assistants doing the work for him and if I want to remember something I shouldn’t ask my wife to remember it for me. When I fell sick three years ago one of the things to go was my short-term memory and badly. I would get up to make a cup of coffee and then walk into my office and wonder what I was looking for in there. I would ask my wife the same questions over and over again because I couldn’t keep what she was telling me in my head for any length of time. And so, yes, I literally began using her as an external memory resource. I stopped trying to remember stuff and began relying more and more on external means, especially my computers.
To keep myself busy – and to exercise my memory – one of the things I did back then was decide to build a website. I had a reasonable working knowledge of Visual Basic for Applications but knew little of HTML and so I sat down to learn it. And every day I found myself having to look up the same things. The thing is, the machine ‘spotted’ me. Spotting, in weight or resistance training, is the act of supporting another person during a particular exercise, with an emphasis on allowing the participant to lift or push more than he or she could normally do safely. In some cases all they’ll do is put two fingers under a bar and keep it moving. Well, the computer held my thoughts for me. If I had two things to try to remember then it could ‘remember’ one of them. And that’s how we progressed: two steps forward, one step back ... two steps forward, one step back. The common tags, bold, italic, paragraphs, that sort of thing, I now remember no problem but anything slightly complicated I type into Google and I have the answer in a fraction of a second, like the parameters for the <image> tag:
Results 1 - 10 of about 266,000,000 for html image. (0.20 seconds)
Memory no longer means that I have to have remembered a thing for it to be mine. I don’t have the time to remember all the things I need to. So I use computers to avoid having to remember completely. Someone else has ‘remembered’ it for me to save me having to do it. That’s how machines were first marketed to us, as time and labour-saving devices.
There is a problem with all of this. You’ll never become an expert. In her article on Short-Term, Long-Term and External Memory Krishna ends with five bullet points showing how we can maximise our various kinds of memory. Here’s No.5:
To be an expert, you absolutely need to work on building long-term memory in the subject. The way to do this is “continuous practice”. If it is theory, read as much as you can. If it is something practical, keep doing it until you can do it in your sleep.
This is why I feel uncomfortable when people ooh and ah about some of my articles as if what you’re getting is the tip of some huge intellectual iceberg. It’s not. It’s an iced lolly and most of the time it’s not even my iced lolly; I’ve rented it for a couple of days while I write my thing. I’m no expert. I am intelligent – I have test scores to prove that – but intelligence is only processing power, not storage capacity.
Where the future lies I don’t know. Science fiction writers are already taking about exocortices, brain-computer interfaces. (That would be the plural of exocortex – see I remember the rules for making plurals but I looked it up just to be sure.)
Results 1 - 10 of about 2,620,000 for ex plural. (0.31 seconds)
Hell, scientists are already having a go at building them. The simple fact is that our relationship with machines is growing closer and closer. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Well all you have to do is look at my wife’s face when she loses her Internet connection and just the suggestion that our TV might be on the blink has her researching new models just in case. (Yes, she does all her research on the Internet.)
Would we survive without them? Of course we would and the same goes for cars and planes and food mixers. That’s not the point. You make use of whatever tools are available to you. Long-tailed macaques near an old Buddhist shrine in Lopburi, Thailand, often pull hair from female tourists for use as dental floss. (I kid you not.)
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What would they do if the visitors all started wearing hats? What did they do beforehand? You adapt and survive.
Having a computer doesn’t make me a lesser individual. It makes me a leaner one. There is a difference. I’m no longer carrying all the knowledge my forbearers had to which means I can box clever thanks to a lot of clever boxes.