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Outsourcing human memory

Posted by Michael Bloch in online world (Wednesday September 26, 2007 )

I can remember our home phone number from 30 years ago. I know my tax file number which I received over 20 years ago. I even remember the registration numbers of most of our family’s cars through my childhood and teen years. Ask me basic information such as my current home phone number and I’m totally without a clue. I even have to stop and think about how old I am and usually the answer is based on a quick calculation on my birth year rather than just knowing “oh, I’m 38”

Is this just advancing age or the Internet, or more accurately my interaction with the Internet, to blame?

My family have grown use to my rather absent minded ways for anything that’s not business related, bless them. Some of it we all put down to aging grey matter and the effects of my misspent youth, but much of it I believe is due to information overload and resulting dependence upon technology to act as my memory. My increasing reliance on Outlook to remind me of tasks such as the need wear underwear is testimony to this. Well, it’s not quite that severe.. or is it.. I’ll never tell;)

I was certainly reassured to hear I’m not the only one experiencing this – Clive Thompson wrote about the phenomenon in Wired yesterday. I found myself identifying with much of what he had to say and there’s some very interesting statistics related to memory/recall of older vs younger folks in his article.This quote in particular made me really stop and think.

“My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we’ve outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us.”

He’s spot-on. I’ve become somewhat of a cyborg; only the electronics haven’t been implanted – I plug myself in. Reminds me of R2D2 in Star Wars :).

I do like the fact of having so much information at my fingertips; and I can find it very, very quickly most times. I was a trivia junkie as a kid and retained so much that my parents suggested sticking me on adult quiz shows. Even unimportant stuff such as music I’m pretty sharp on – as long as it was produced before 1996 :). After that.. well.. the Internet entered my life. I was and still am like a kid in a candy store – so many interesting topics; but, to memorize even *important* information now takes real effort. It’s like a section of my brain shut down somewhat or started performing other tasks. I even find myself regularly referring back to articles I’ve published in the past to get the information I need.

So what are the tasks that section of my brain is now performing? Clive suggests perhaps our minds are gearing more towards brainstorming and daydreaming. I’m not so sure about that one. I certainly daydream less. I think my noggin is still trying to process all the information I consume in a day and file it – mostly unsuccessfully. Heck, I even have dreams occasionally where I have to click to get to the next part of the dream – I’m serious :).

How about you – is this phenomenon something that you’ve noticed in your own life? Should we resist it or just allow ourselves to become more “cyborg-ish”? If we’ve gotten to the point where retention becomes a challenge, should we put ourselves on an information diet?


3 comments for Outsourcing human memory
  1. Man – I thought I was the only one.

    Personally, I’ve found that it’s not necessarily harder to remember facts that I’m exposed to. But technology increasingly hides information from us.

    For example, I recently learned a new programming framework, and it was pretty easy to retain that info.

    But phone numbers? If I need to call someone, I just lookup their name in my cell phone. I never even see the number.

    Comment by Starr Horne — September 26, 2007 @ 9:48 am

  2. Wow. Just what i needed. For a while, I thought I was wierd.
    I personally have found out that I have developed a very selective memory. Storing only information that I believe is crucial.
    As a software developer I find that with a selective memory it has become easy to learn new frameworks, yet at the same time I can’t remember things my mind considers to be trivial like song lyrics, or movie directors except I really liked a song or a movie.

    A few days ago, I almost got lost while trying to get to a friend’s house although I had travelled along that road a million times. It was simple, I had never considered learning or observing the way because I had considered that trivial. Most of the time, we rode to his place I was either brainstorming, talking, listening to music. I definitely was planning to rely on mapquest for directions when the time came to get to his place.

    My friend however could not just understand how I still couldn’t locate having been there several times.

    Comment by Arthur Lance — October 22, 2007 @ 1:41 pm

  3. Maybe we need to form some sort of twelve step group – “Hi, I’m Michael, and I’ve outsourced my memory.. it all began with Outlook’s calendar function..” :)

    Comment by Michael Bloch — October 23, 2007 @ 5:43 am

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