Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Are we outsourcing our memory?

When neuroscientist Ian Robertson tested 3,000 people he found significant differences between the young and old in the recall of personal information (telephone numbers, relative’s dates of birth etc). The differences were in some cases as much as 87% versus 40% recall. Robertson puts this down to fingertip knowledge retrieval. Why remember telephone numbers, dates and email addresses, when they’re stored online?

Put it in

In short, we’re outsourcing our memory. My blogs (e-learning, travel, art) are extensions of my brain’s memory storage, as are my stored photographs, papers, book reviews , powerpoints and so on. I’ve been blogging for years only to find that my posts form a sort of archive of thoughts that I often turn to for answers to questions I’m asked or reports I write or for items in talks I give at conferences. When writing or saving stuff becomes habitual, you find, years later, that you have an invaluable trace of personal thoughts and reflections. It’s also a powerful method of learning, as it makes you enjoy learning, focus your thoughts and engage in debate with others. I’ve loved receiving comments on my blog and engaging with people, many whom I have never met. Rather than locking up your thoughts, and inevitably forgetting most of them, you can get it down and it’s out there. I have also benefited from these outpourings and memory archives of others I admire – Clive Shepherd, Jay Cross, Seb Schmoller, David Wilson and many others. Their memories seem accessible to me.

Pull it out
What’s interesting about this form of storage is the power of retrieval. Rather than relying on my increasingly fallible ability to recall knowledge I can, wherever I am in the world, go online and pull it out in it’s original digitally perfect form. There’s no forgetting, filtering or distortion. My iPod has my lifetime’s likes in music ready to be retrieved from my pocket. Like many others I have searched for a topic on Google only to see my own archived blog entry appear on the first search page. This is as stark a comparison between the fallibility of biological memory, compared to the infallibility of my extended digital memory.

Pass it on
This retrieved knowledge can even be passed on with links in emails or messenger. It’s this instant access, looking up Wikipedia or Googling while on the phone, in a meeting or a conference call, that characterises this extension of memory. It’s retrieval with a punch – with replicability.

Truly remarkable
What’s remarkable about all of this outsourced memory is that’s it’s free. The tools, storage and retrieval are all free. It’s hard to see how astonishing this change has been, how absolutely revolutionary. And this is only the beginning. Our new digital identities will become ever-more important, possibly as important as our biological identities.


Tony Karrer said...

Donald - can you provide a link to the research you are citing? This is something I've been thinking about for a while, but have not seen that research. Great post!

Jonathan Marks said...

I am a little worried about "free" because it could be that tomorrow's business model may be to charge for access to the stuff I stored away for free. Like photo sites for instance. I work in the broadcast industry where 80% of the radio/TV archives are rotting and proper indexing stopped in the 70's at many stations. It is easier to make a programme about 1948 than 1984. Sort of national Alzheimers.

Donald Clark said...

Research is from Ian Robertson quoted in,,2-1770241,00.html

also in

He's a neoroscientist from Trinity College Dublin and has written some excellent and accessible books on the mind and memory, including Mind Sculpture and Stay Sharp.

Anonymous said...

I am developing a great enthusiasm for this capturing of my thoughts but I am starting to find some disturbing similarities between my memory and my computer extension of my memory.

First - I know its in there but I'll be damned if I can find it (Google search aside).

Second - Will my computer memory ever develop its own form of Alzheimer's ? This is actually a real concern I have - to be sure anything I put on lone is archved in a storage form I have ultimate control of.

Tony Karrer said...

Thanks Donald. Merry Christmas.