When Your Backup Brain (i.e., Technology) Takes On Primary Memory Functions

from the i'd-say-it's-bad,-but-my-computer-disagrees... dept

For years, we’ve talked about the idea that computers and the internet are becoming something of a backup or second brain. The more we use these technologies, the more we allow them to remember stuff for us — knowing we can always track down that information. In fact, Clive Thompson’s latest column is about how the generation of kids growing up online tend not to remember little things that older generations definitely remember, like phone numbers and birthdays. Why remember those things when they’re easily stored away and easily accessed thanks to technology? While Thompson talks about how nice it is that he can feel much smarter while he’s connected, he also worries that it makes him “mentally crippled” when not connected. There may be something to that idea. After all, a few years ago there was a story about Steve Mann, a professor who had been living his life with a wearable computing system for 20 years. At an airport, he was forced to take the apparatus off and immediately had trouble functioning normally. He had become so reliant on the technological enhancements, that being without them left him somewhat crippled. While few people will have reached that point, it’s certainly suggestive of what happens if we become too reliant on those external backup brains. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be using technology for this purpose — or even that it’s not a good thing. However, we should be aware of what it means and potentially the impact should it go away (temporarily or permanently).

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Comments on “When Your Backup Brain (i.e., Technology) Takes On Primary Memory Functions”

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Jesse McNelis (user link) says:

But the same can be said about anything you use.
I can’t spell very well without a keyboard, it’s not the spell checking, it’s the learned key strokes. But the same thing is true with a lot of people who have to write down a word to work out how to spell it.

If lost my internet connection Iwould have difficulty doing certain things, but if I lost an arm I’d also have difficulty. In both cases the difficulty wouldn’t last long because I would adapt to not rely on something I didn’t have.

It’s currently not very likely that the internet is going to go away anytime soon, and if it did then we’d have much worse things to be worried about than not remembering birthdays.
I’m sure after afew days Steve Mann would have gotten used to functioning without his wearable computer equipment.

NFG (profile) says:

It makes sense

Freeing your brain from the burden of memory frees it up to do things like search and crosslink. I accomplish more and faster with Google than I ever could with my memory. I don’t even bookmark pages I find, ’cause I know I can find them again later.

I used to remember phone numbers, now the only ones I remember are my work and my mobile, and only ’cause people ask me for them all the time. I mean, who even uses a phone? I’m more likely to remember an IP.

I don’t need to remember things, I just need to remember processes. I know how to find the information I need, and I know how to assemble that into a larger whole with the other things I find. Short term memory has become medium-term: It’s there just long enough to finish something, and if I need to come back to it a year later, I’m learning it all over again. But fast!

I don’t remember PHP commands. I remember where I found them last time. I don’t remember phone numbers, I remember how to work my phone, and I intuit how to work someone else’s if the need arises. I don’t remember passwords, my browser does that for me and I remember how to reset it if the browser breaks.

It’s all about the processes.

kureshii says:

Well, of course they could remember phone numbers… when phones were relatively rarer and you didn’t need to remember more than 20. And even then there was something called the telephone book – my parents still keep a book of the fixed line numbers of relatives.

In the modern-day context? some people have 2 or numbers to their name – as if email addresses weren’t difficult enough to remember, now we have to know the contents of our SIM cards as well? Give the human brain a break…

David Griffin (profile) says:

Do I need to remember a load of facts ?

Progressive education has for a while known that it’s more important teaching kids processes than facts they can regurgitate. At school 20 years ago I studied Richard the 3rd, not to learn the facts, but to learn how there can be many conflicting sources of evidence. That I remember – the actual facts have all gone now.

So if my kids can’t remember any historical dates but can find them on demand, that’s fine by me. As an old engineering management tutor told me, “I won’t teach you everything, but I’ll teach you how to find anything within 3 phone calls”. Obviously the modern day equivalent of that is “using Google”.

There’s a definite modern day skill to using tech to find things or to store things so you can find them again.
I have several gigs of digital photos :
– are they backed up ?
– Can I find the ones I want easily ?
I have shedloads of passwords etc on my palm
– is it encrypted ?
– is it backed up ?
– if my palm is stolen/dropped/lost do I have a reserve palm or could I restore the data to something else I could go out and buy soon ? (no use relying on a dead platform)

This is the “process” stuff of today that the new generation needs to be able to do. If they can do this well, they will have far more at their disposal than folks used to, and they’ll be less stressed about it.

My only worry with today’s direction is that the pervasive availability of search is eroding people’s ability to categorise or file things in an organised way (after all, why bother ?)

I’m not sure I can yet paste a pic of my daughter into Google Desktop and say “search all my digital pics for more of her” so for now I need to put some effort into categorising pictures. But that day will come.
There are certainly tools to index sound files by keywords using voice recognition (I’m sure dhs.gov own them…)

Matt says:

Its good to see most folks disagree with that article. The process is definately more important than the thing. Mankind has been inventing “technology” to make life easier for how many years now? (Hint: not just since the evolution of the computer…) If we don’t allow technology to take on some of our tasks, we will never be able to advance!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Even college

You ever heard the saying, those who can’t do teach?

Sometimes being able to spit out info is important, but usually you specifically prepare for it ahead of time before an event, and you memorize info that you need to know. Afterwards, if you find you no longer need it, you forget the specifics but you remember enough to quickly re-learn it if needed. It’s sorta like remembering everything for an exam, and forgetting it afterwards.

Anonymous Coward says:

I believe this is true to a point. However, in this world of information we now live in, it is impossible to remember everything we need to. Before computers, people kept written log books, rolodexes, etc. There has always been information storage in some form or another. Computers just make it so much easier that we tend to cheat.

I believe that the answer isn’t to reject computers as a “second brain” entirely, but rather be realistic about what to rely on them for. For example, there’s no way I could remember all the phone numbers for the contacts in my cell phone address book. However, I remember the few most important ones, so if that phone dies or gets lost or stolen, I can use any other phone to get a hold of the people I need. Same thing with PCs. I already remember way too much trivial information, and there’s no way I can remember it all. I keep the most important things, or the things I do most often, in my head, and leave the rest on the computer or notes to refer to later as necessary.

But, I will agree that somebody who is disconnected from his computer and cannot function normally has a serious problem, and needs psychiatric help of some sort. That’s about as bad as that commercial where these people are walking down the street, one guy guided solely by his GPS smart phone. Somebody pulls it from his hand, and he stops and looks around with a blank stare, like his brain just got turned off. Then it is given back to him, and he picks right up where he left off. It makes for a good chuckle, but in real life it would be a serious problem.

Le Bleu Dude says:


Learning the process is good in cases where the process is more efficent then recolection (for example changing data)

Learning the data is better in situations where performing the process would take longer then just recalling the data (As a man who plans ahead, I got the important stuff down)

These claims have been made since the invention of the written word.

Anonymous Coward says:

> i read a short story years ago about a society who actually
> put men in missiles to do the math required to get to the
> target because they had become so reliant upon technology

Isaac Asimov, “The Feeling of Power”

“Yes. Well, Dr. Shuman tells me that in theory there is nothing the computer can do that the human mind cannot do. The computer merely takes a finite amount of data and performs a finite number of operations upon them. Then human mind can duplicate the process.”

chris (profile) says:

when technology attacks

yes, technology is good for helping us use our brains better, but you should always have a backup plan and never forget who the boss is.

if your little gadget tells you what to do and where to go, you are no longer the boss. sci-fi types call this “technological singularity”, where the technology evolves past humans. technology is still dependent on humans, making it just as fallible as any human.

case in point: i do IT for a bunch of doctors, and they all use their treos to keep track of thier schedules. this was just great until the daylight savings time fiasco last year.

we had docs showing up hours early to meetings and missing appointments and all hell broke loose. the blame shifts squarely to the IT group because everything with a microchip is our fault.

i had to gently explain that it’s ok to second guess your phone. if you are not sure if the little box is correct, contact a human to double check… i.e. your secretary.

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