02.10.18 / Human memory Vs. the Web

Socrates was right. As people grew accustomed to writing their thoughts and reading the thoughts others had written, they came to rely less on the contents of their own memory.

In worrying that writing our thoughts down would cripple our memory, Socrates was, as the Italian novelist and scholar Umberto Eco put it, expressing “an eternal fear: the fear that a new technological achievement could abolish or destroy something that we consider precious, fruitful, something that represents for us a value in itself, and a deeply spiritual one.”

It turns out Socrates’ fear was misplaced. Books were a supplement to memory, but they also, as Eco describes, “challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotize it.”

The coming of the seemingly limitless, searchable data banks of the Interwebs brought with it a further shift, not just in the way we view memorisation, but in the way we understand memory itself. The Web has become a replacement for, rather than just a supplement to, personal memory. Now, discussion on artificial memory as though it’s indistinguishable from biological memory is commonplace.

Wired’s Clive Thompson describes the Web as an “outboard brain” (an external hard-drive, if you will) replacing the role of human memory. “I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything because I can instantly retrieve the information online,” Thompson says. “By offloading data onto silicon, we free our own grey matter for more germanely ‘human’ tasks like brainstorming and daydreaming,” Thompson suggests.

Peter Suderman, who writes for the American Scene, argues that, with our more or less permanent connections to the Interwebs, it’s no longer suitably efficient to use our brains to store information.

“Memory,” Suderman suggests, “should now function like a simple index, pointing us to places on the Web where we can locate the information we need at the moment we need it. Why memorise the content of a single book when you could be using your brain to hold a quick guide to an entire library? Rather than memorise information, we now store it digitally and just remember what we stored.”

Finally, Don Tapscott, the tech writer bluntly posits now that we can look up anything “with a click on Google, memorising long passages or historical facts is a waste of time.”

Is it, though? Is it really?

What do you think?

— QS



1. Umberto Eco, “From Internet to Gutenberg,” lecture presented at Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, November 12, 1996, www.umbertoeco.com/en/from-internet-to-gutenberg-1996.html

2. Clive Thompson, “Your Outboard Brain Knows All,” Wired, October 2007.

3. Peter Suderman, “ Your Brain Is an Index,” American Scene, May 10, 2009, www.theamericanscene.com/2009/05/11/your-brain-is-an-index

4. Alexandra Frean, “Google Generation Has No Need for Rote Learning,” Times (London), December 2, 2008: and Don Tapscott, Grown Up Digital (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 115.

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Heath Campbell

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