By Bonnie Hutchinson
No time, memory and
No time, memory and
You know how you go online for a piece of information and something on a sidebar attracts your attention and that reminds you of something else and then you flip to social media and in “no time” (that is, when you lose touch with the passage of time) an hour has disappeared?
On the way to this column I had one of those experiences. A short CBC item, “Internal Hard Drive: What’s lost when we forget to remember” started it.
The article suggested that we use smart phones as an external hard drive for our memory. We rely on smartphones to remember everything from phone numbers to people’s birthdays. The article said, “Our reliance on portable technology has led some to argue that we’re losing our grasp of memory on a larger scale, and in turn, our hold on the foundations of knowledge.”
Before writing was invented, the ability to memorize was crucial. Indigenous people had oral traditions to preserve tribal knowledge. In ancient Greece, memorizing was the basis of education. Scholars were expected to recite Homer’s epic poems, which would take more than 18 hours to recite. However, memorizing wasn’t just about pulling facts. It was a source for creating original ideas. When the Greek alphabet was created, scholars worried that reading and writing would cheapen knowledge; a method not for remembering, but for forgetting; for creating the illusion of knowledge.
Fast forward. In the 1960s, Canadian Marshall McLuhan (the medium is the message) wrote about how tools and technology can numb the parts of ourselves that we seek to extend. Example: When calculators were introduced, they were a great convenience. However, some people were concerned (accurately, as it turned out) that if we became too dependent on calculators without understanding mathematics, we’d not only lose our mathematical ability, but gradually we’d no longer be able to tell when a calculator’s answer didn’t make sense.
The CBC article quotes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, as saying, “Our ability to remember things seems to be reduced when we’re gathering information through our phones and through Google and off the web…On one hand, we have all this artificial memory that we can tap into…but we’re less likely to form our own personal internal biological memories of all that stuff so it numbs the memory faculty inside our minds.”
Carr says the idea of technologies being “external hard drives” for our memories misunderstands how biological memory works. Our biological memories are rich with connections and associations. Computer memory just stores random bits of information.
That idea caused me to remember, vaguely, a quote from Nobel prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein–something about not cluttering up our minds with things we can look up. I Googled to see if I could find the original quote and–in no time– I’d meandered through all kinds of interesting things about Einstein. The downside: a couple of hours had evaporated and the column wasn’t started.
In the spirit of sharing (or possibly causing you too to be distracted) here’s the quote, along with a couple of others I really appreciated. In response to not knowing the speed of sound, Einstein said, “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books.” Three other Einstein quotes I appreciated: “Education is not the learning of facts, it’s rather the training of the mind to think.”
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
My take from all this: Technology is a good servant and bad master.
I’d love to hear from you! If you have comments about this column or suggestions for future topics, send a note to Bonnie@BonnieHutchinson.com. I’ll happily reply within one business day. read more