Reflections on the changing role of memory in the digital age

Just saw this posting on lifehacker a couple days ago, and thought I would share:

A recent psychological study in Science suggests we may be changing the way we store memory. Instead of remembering facts and information, we have started to remember where we can find the information online.

Researchers in the study say the internet acts as “transactive memory,” meaning we recognize it as an external memory source. The idea isn’t new, throughout history we have associated certain people with an expertise or a skill set and who have answers to our questions, but in this case, we’re doing the same thing with the internet.

One of the experiments in this study provided a set of facts to two groups of participants and asked them to remember them. Half of the group was told these facts would remain in folders on a computer, the other half were told they would be deleted. Participants who knew the files would be erased performed significantly better in a memory test than those who knew they could pull up the information later.

Lead author Dr. Betsy Sparrow notes to the BBC, “This suggests that for the things we can find online, we tend to keep it online as far as memory is concerned.” The participants in the study tended to remember the location of information rather than the information itself.

This reminds me of the famous (and likely misatributed) quote, “Never memorize something that you can look up.”

The argument that the Internet is changing the way we think isn’t really all that new or radical. For example, there was a widely distributed article from a few years back titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” where the author makes the case that the Internet is destroying our ability to read long-form prose. Of course, he does recognize the historical antecedents to the issue:

Maybe I’m just a worrywart. Just as there’s a tendency to glorify technological progress, there’s a countertendency to expect the worst of every new tool or machine. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, in the 15th century, set off another round of teeth gnashing. The Italian humanist Hieronimo Squarciafico worried that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness, making men “less studious” and weakening their minds. Others argued that cheaply printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, “Most of the arguments made against the printing press were correct, even prescient.” But, again, the doomsayers were unable to imagine the myriad blessings that the printed word would deliver.

There are other studies that have correlated scanning behaviours between those that read mostly online versus printed text. Online readers tend to scan the left margin and then work right when something catches their eye, as opposed to the more traditional left-to-right-top-to-bottom approach favoured by static text.

Part of the problem as I see it (insofar as any nascent shift in educational paradigms is a “problem”), is that students have a number of pressures at play in their school lives. The school culture has produced students that are drowning in homework (There is a recent documentary about this called “The Race to Nowhere” that I really want to see). Students are conditioned to be efficient when it comes to reading. Moreover, modern textbook design encourages skimming.

Visual literacy is most directly impacted by these changes in reading behaviour. Next time you are watching movie previews, count the number of scenes that are worked into each preview.  In general, the younger the target audience, the larger the number of clips in each preview. Apparently editors do this beacuse younger, tech-wise audiences are better at visually parsing large amounts of data for meaning than older folks. They are trained to quickly glance at something and assess it for value. I see this as an incredibly useful skill that comes on the opposite side of the “kids ain’t readin’ like back in the old days!” coin.

Finally, I wonder why people are so keen to hold on to long-form prose. Has the Internet shaped how we read, or has the Internet evolved to best fit how we innately wish to access information? Maybe the Internet has given rise to this kind of pan-and-scan literacy precisely because that is what best suits the way we as a species engage and interact with the world?


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