Our Communal Memory

The old fogies amongst us, that is, anyone over 30, will recall examinations that required that we remember all sorts of stuff. Such things as open book exams were dangled on the horizons of our desires. Those classmates who did well and remembered all that stuff were deemed to be clever. Now things are very different. There is no need to store all that general information and tie up those synapses with trivia. Google, Wikipedia and their lesser brethren are a few thumb taps away.

Now that we no longer have to try and remember things, we have to get organized with our bookmarks and favorites. Re-searching the whole of the collective memory would take too long if we had to do it afresh every time. Instant gratification is already taking too long. So now we have to remember where to find things in our transactive memory.

Sparrow et al have been testing students (not old fogies) on their interaction with computers and if they try and remember what they were doing (1). There were a series of tests, but the interesting one was where they had to type in lots of trivia statements that they were given and the computer told them that it had stored it in a file or had erased it. Half of the students in each of these groups were also asked to remember the statements.

Well, no one did very well remembering many of the statements. The ones that were told that the data would be erased did better, though. They also did better when shown the statements, many of which had been slightly altered. Being told to remember did nothing for them. It was the knowledge that it would be erased so they wouldn’t be able to look it up that worked. When students were told that the information would be stored in one of a series of folders, they were much better at remembering the name of the folder than the details of the information.

The tendency, then, is to remember where you put things rather than exactly what they are, even when the trivia was a memorable as “The international dialing code for Antarctica is 672,” “Bluebirds can’t see the color blue” or “A quarter has 119 grooves around the edge.” Any of these gems must be worth a beer in any bar room discussion.

The downside is, of course that knowing a fact is not the same as understanding it. We still have to learn to ask why or else we’ll stagnate. So it will be interesting to see if we become smarter now that we  have our huge transactive communal memory in addition to our personal one, thus freeing up our little grey cells for creativity and leaving parroting to the parrots.

  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2011/07/13/science.1207745

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