Internet Steals Memory

People in pre-literate societies had phenomenal memories.  Great epics like the Iliad & the Odyssey started off as oral stories.   While details were dropped or enhanced over time, storytellers could repeat from memory tales that cover hundreds of pages of modern print.  

Literacy is a foundation of civilization.  One of the reasons is that it enhances and replaces physical human memory.    It allows for accurate communication over distance and time and prevents the loss of knowledge and collective experience.  It also means that individuals no longer need to remember details when they can consult an easily available written source.  They no longer need to learn them at all when they can easily consult the collective memory. The analogy of memory to muscle is imperfect, but Hippocrates’ old dictum still applies, “That which is used develops; that which is not used wastes away.”   Everything else being equal, a man with a notebook and pencil is still better off than the man who has to rely only on his great memory, but we pay an atrophy price for leaning on the memory crutch.   

Computers and the Internet turbo-charge access to the collective memory. Much of the accumulated knowledge of humanity is available in seconds at the cost of a few key strokes.   That is why I love the Internet.   (I feel a tinge of regret that my treasured for reference sources have become mostly dusty decorations, and  I still appreciate the cultural and tactile pleasure of actually a book, but I fear that the last “people of the book” generation has already been born.)  Internet magnifies my memory, but it also changes it. 

My memory used to be better and I don’t chalk up the entire decline to the effects of age. Internet & computers are partly responsible.  That which is not used wastes away and if you know you don’t have to use it, you often don’t.  I don’t have to exercise memory as I used to because I know l I really need to remember only parts.  If I can remember part of a name and part of a story, that is good enough.  Internet will do the rest.   A good example is the quotation from Hippocrates above. I remembered that the quote existed. I thought it was from Hippocrates. Google found it.  

My memory used to be imperfect but it was organized mostly in complete stories associated with names, places and often dates in ways that made sense.  My computer assisted memory is unorganized and random.   I rely on external organization power of software to put what I know in order. Search engines assemble it for me, and I have mixed feelings about that. Computer power enhances but devalues intellectual muscle in the same way power equipment enhances but devalues physical muscle. It is an equalizer.  

Being a strong man used to be a determining advantage working on a farm or building a house.   I can still remember a time when truck drivers had powerful forearms from wrestling the wheels of the big rigs or when you knew that a man was a farmer by shaking hands with him.  Today just about anybody can aspire to these jobs. Lack of physical strength is no longer a barrier.   

Will the same thing happen with intelligence?  It is happening already. I am a beneficiary. I could handle the higher level math required for my MBA only because calculators and computers largely eliminated the need for actual calculation. My statistics professor was sad that all her years of training doing regression equations by hand had been made redundant by cheap calculators that could be wielded by anybody with a couple minutes instruction.

All things considered, the price is worth paying. You are reading something right now that could not exist ten years ago, and not only because of the obvious internet as a medium. I write something for my blog almost every day. Many of the entries are recounting of my experiences, but some are mini-essays.  I can write, edit and post an entry in less than an hour.  This is only possible because of technology.   My digital camera provides the illustrations.  Everything I do would have taken me a lot more time and probably required added help. Microsoft Word replaces someone who would read and correct my grammar and spelling.   The digital camera replaces the photo developer. Easy upload takes the place of printers.  The Internet delivers it and provides takes the place of researchers who would have to dig through card catalogues and dusty stacks to give me what Google does in seconds.  Ain’t technology wonderful?

Most things are better remembered than they were lived.  My memory probably was never as good as I remember it being anyway.