Friday, December 11, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: The Decline and Fall of Human Memory

In the days before the printing press, scholars were capable of feats of memory that seem unfathomable to us now. Daniel Boorstin writes of Roman orators who could repeat long speeches they had heard only once before, of medieval philosophers who memorized every scroll they read, of mnemonic tricks that could be used to easily commit any text to memory.

The rise of the printing press and movable type rendered all these powers of recall obsolete. Before Gutenberg, certain texts only existed at specific locations. A scholar might never get a chance to read this text again in his life, and such powers of memory were completely necessary. But once books became commonplace, texts could be easily multiplied and distributed. Memorization was no longer a required skill to become educated.

This was a major paradigm shift, perhaps the most important thing to happen in the entirety of the last millennium. And now, for only the second time in the history of mankind, we are going through another such transition.

The rise of books meant that information became easily obtainable at schools and libraries. While books were still too expensive and bulky for any one person to own more than a handful, it was very easy to track down any book that you wanted to obtain the information you needed. Countless pages were used to print phone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias and almanacs, attempting to store this information in the easiest and most accessible way possible. The long term memory of antiquity became the short-term memory of the present; if you looked something up in the Britannica at the library, you only had to remember this information for as long as it took you to drive home.

Now we live in a world of "no-term" memory. If I'm reading a book and I'm not familiar with a certain word, I don't even have to retain this word long enough for me to dig up a dictionary and look it up. I only have to pull my phone out of my pocket and text Google.

Driving directions? Friends' phone numbers? Personal schedules? Movie times? None of this needs to be written down and stored on paper anymore. It can all be accessed instantaneously. It's convenient, but it also means that we don't need to remember a damn thing.

There were hints of this transformation at the beginning of the decade - anyone remember Encarta? - but dial-up Internet and slow bandwidth speeds still effectively prevented the web from being a large scale information retrieval device. The rise of broadband access and mobile Internet devices in the "aughties" meant that now one can access anything on the Internet wherever they are. Wikipedia, YouTube and Google Books were nothing but crazy dreams ten years; today, they are practically indispensable.

This is an incredible shift in how we perceive and consume our information. Cultural critics are ranting apocalyptic diatribes about how this is going to kill our attention span, and destroy our reading comprehension, and all that stuff. They might be right, but I think the reality is that nobody knows how this is going to affect us in the slightest. This is a paradigm shift that is large, so immense, that it is literally going to change how the human race perceives the world. There has been a lot of talk about how we have all this information "at our fingertips", but I wonder if we haven't yet realized how much that really is.

In effect, everything. Nearly every book ever published in the past hundred years is in Google's database; they're waiting on bated breath for the day they can release it to the public. Similarly, there are several large academic databases for scholarly articles and journals. Practically every piece of music you could want is on the Internet in some form or another, and the day is not so far off when most movies and TV shows will be available for streaming. Want to watch a newscast from any historical event of the last fifty years? Fire up YouTube, and you can probably find it.

I'm trying not to be overly hyperbolic, but this is a huge deal. And I think that we have going to have change how we go about educating ourselves. Just as those scholars at the dawn of the printing press no longer had to worry about memorizing entire books, perhaps our education no longer has to consist of memorization of facts. Much like pocket calculators have done to math, could it be that we need to redirect our efforts, and focus on learning how to process and analyze all this information, rather than cramming it into our brains? The ability to discern what is and is not quality information might soon become more important than mere memorization.

At the same time, we need to be careful that this reliance on our newfound access to the entirety of human knowledge does not make us complacent. There's a very good chance that, in an age where we have access to everything, we could end up knowing nothing at all.