Damaris Zehner: Outsourcing our Brains

Thinker Psychadelic

Outsourcing our Brains
By Damaris Zehner

Recently I gave a test in one of my English classes.  Part of the test involved reading selections from five short pieces of literature and writing down the author and title to each.  All five pieces were ones we had spent time on in class, and I chose very obvious passages from them to identify.  The problem wasn’t identifying the passages.  The problem was that not a single student had memorized the first and last names of five authors and the titles of their works.

I looked at what they had written in place of the complete name and title:  a word or two, a last name with a question mark for the first name, names that started with the first letter but weren’t otherwise at all the same.  And these were my best students.  The ones who were struggling just left that page empty or drew emoticons in the answer blanks.  What was going on here?

I realized that my students had learned exactly enough to type a search request into Google and most likely get the author and work they were looking for.   They knew they couldn’t use the internet during the test; they are an honorable bunch with no intention of checking a cell phone under the table.  So all I can conclude is that this is what memorization means now – the ability to find something on Google.  We have outsourced our memories.

Well, so what.  Socrates objected to writing over two thousand years ago because he thought it would make us stupider and damage our memories.  Of course there have been plenty of smart people since then.  In Socrates’ defense, while writing didn’t make us stupider, it did damage our memories.   I will, however, continue to write, because what I lose in my own mental capacity I gain in the volume and accuracy of the information I am able to deal with.  People defend the internet – and cars, and forklifts, and food processors – in the same way: that these are worthwhile technological trade-offs.  So my concern here is not a question of technology versus no technology.  I love the written word, and I’m very happy I don’t have to walk fifteen miles to work every day.  But at what point do we outsource too much of our innate humanity and end up damaging ourselves and our culture?

There are many signs that we’ve reached the point of damage in the physical realm.  Our bodies have suffered from our reliance on increasingly efficient technologies, whether we’re talking about developing an embolism from sitting on an airplane or in front of a computer game too long or just being a little overweight because we no longer walk anywhere.  I contend that we are reaching that point in the intellectual realm, too – when to know something means to be able to type, click, skim, and forget.

Many people hold that it’s worthwhile outsourcing our memories to Google if it means we have so much more at our fingertips than we would otherwise.  (Although do we even know how much we could carry around in our heads – we, who can’t memorize our own cell phone numbers because we have them on our phone and don’t need to?  We may be giving up more than we think.)  But I have two – actually three – caveats about outsourcing our memories.

First, are the technologies we are yielding our capacities to, and the organizations that control those technologies, really on our side?  Do Google and Apple and Microsoft want us to be the best people we can be?  Will they discontinue any technology that is found to be harmful, even if consumers still seem to want to buy it?  Call me cynical, but I don’t think so.  I’m not saying they are part of a vast conspiracy to rob us of our brains; they just want to make money and to grow.  These corporations don’t need to conspire, after all, because we are all cooperating with them in this great outsourcing experiment.  So no conspiracy — although I admit, in my darker hours, parallels with the Opium Wars or El Chapo come to mind.

Second, are these technologies we rely on so heavily even permanent?  Can we count on our children and grandchildren being able to access our accumulated wisdom through the internet?  I know by heart songs that have been around for centuries and can teach them to others.  I own editions of books that are more than 150 years old and can still read them and pass them on to my kids.  Will the internet in its current form be around in 150 years?  Again, I don’t think so.  The internet is amazing, but it is fragile.  Think of the supply chains necessary for you to read this post, from mining the rare metals for the computers and smart phones, through the delivery to consumers by means of nonrenewable fossil fuels, to the reliability of satellites in increasingly crowded orbits.  Think of the environmental and economic costs along the way.  Think of the political costs, too, of information so freely available – and so able to be tampered with by those who would like reality to be other than what it is.  If we are going to outsource an innate human capacity, should we be outsourcing it to such a vulnerable technology?

Third – and this should probably be first – by relying on these external technologies, are we shaping ourselves into the kind of people God intends us to be?  This is a tricky argument and ends up too often in prooftexting wars, so let me just ask this:  What exactly does God mean when he says again and again and again, “Remember; don’t forget?”  God doesn’t say how we’re supposed to remember, and he was obviously fine with writing things down.  But we won’t always have a Bible handy, any more than a computer.  There may be times we need to actually remember.  Scripture promises us suffering in this life, and we know that’s true when we look at our history.  We also notice, when considering that history, that Christians who suffered relied on what they remembered – what they carried around in their actual, physical brains: the Bible verses and songs that were a comfort to them and the examples of saints and martyrs that they had heard of or read about.  I’ve commented before that my students, even those who are Christians, don’t have any of those things stored in their heads.  They don’t know Bible stories or substantive hymns, they are unfamiliar with our mothers and fathers in the faith, and they couldn’t recite a creed if you paid them.

I worry about them, about how they will manage now and in the future.  Most of them get restless and anxious when they’re asked not to check their cell phones or computers for an hour and a half, which is reasonable if they are being asked to do without their memories for that long.  I wouldn’t want to have amnesia, either.  But if they have a hard time left to their own devices for a class period, what would they do if they were in a prison camp for a decade?  Or in a more likely scenario, if they had a prolonged power outage?  But we don’t even have to look at extreme examples to anticipate failure; they couldn’t memorize five names and titles for a test they knew about and had days to study for.

We don’t have to accept inventions mindlessly.  We can ask ourselves what is good.  If our bodies get flabby because we do too little physical work, we can reorganize our lives to walk more and work more.  If our brain gets flabby because we do too little mental work, we can reclaim the intellectual skills of the past.  We have a great capacity for healing, both in body and in mind, and can rise to the challenge.  We just have to know what is right for us as human beings and then live that way – “just” that, as if it were easy!  We can’t do it in our own strength; we need grace and communion with God through prayer.  Prayer – hey, there’s an app for that, isn’t there?

70 thoughts on “Damaris Zehner: Outsourcing our Brains

  1. P.S. I “perform unnatural acts with computers” for a living. When I’m not getting paid for it I want to get as far away from them as possible. At home I only use it for email correspondence, word processing (formerly known as writing), Web-based research (as a HUGE encyclopedia), Comics and Art gallery, and Video player via YouTube.


  2. These days, KFI Morning Drive-Time is one and the same with Bill Handel (i.e. the Mouthy Brazilian Jew). Though in the mid-Nineties there was this two-female team who were pretty good.

    Afternoon remains John & Ken, AKA “the Hour of the Bullhorn”.

    But then, for an AM radio talk host, Mouthiness is part of the job description.


  3. The worst is when you’re talking to someone whose name you should know (and who clearly is assuming you know who they are), but for some reason or another that information has fallen out the back of your head.

    I never had much of a memory for names myself, and now that I’ve turned 60 I find the hard drive in my head has filled up. (“Not Responding… Please Wait…”)


  4. And you never know how much your body really needs heroin or meth (and how much you really like it) until you’ve tried it. And tried it again. And tried it again and again. And tried it again and again and again…


  5. I have nothing against the technology; if I only have one foot in the information technology world, it’s because I’m piss-poor and can’t afford the stuff other people have. People have a tendency to idealize the past, former eras and ways of doing things; it’s a misbegotten tendency. I confess to indulging it all too frequently myself.


  6. HUG, have you ever used a smartphone? It’s a handheld computer, really. Very useful in ways that have nothing to do with constant phone calls and texting.

    Try it. You might like it.


  7. Robert, i honestly think it’s more to do with the way that an emphasis on memorization has been put on the back burner. People *can* memorize; it’s work, but done all the time in sll kinds of disciplines, like the study of other languages. And in the sciences, and in music, and…

    If anything, there’s far too much info. around, and fewer ways to sift through it. I kind of disengaged from TV (cable) a few years ago and have found that helpful, especially in escaping the relentless 24/7 news cycle. I still watch shows (mostly things i learn about on the internet), via a Roku streaming box and Netflix, etc. No commercials = lots less to filter, better attention span.

    And where i live would be unbearable without internet access. In no uncertain terms.

    I also am bothered by the assumption that smart whatever is making people stupid. Frankly, those who widh to be disengaged found other wsys of doing it in the not so distant past, and i think a whole lot of people use phones snd tsblets for reading – books, magazines, newspapers.


  8. Robert – yeah, i agree that keeping to the exact syllable count in English isn’t as important as the feeling. A lot of people write thr correct number of syllables, but have no feeling for what the form is about, or the subject matter (in Japan). I’m not a stickler for that, but i think it helps to actually gain some appreciation for the way the Japanese use it to capture vivid impressions and a sense of transience.

    I was driving home from the grocery store when this one kind of composed itself, and thankfully, i remembered enough of it to get it down. So your poem and mine are vloser than you think! Love your opening line; has a nice thythm snd feel to it.

    (Confession: i got hooked on haiku when i was very young. My dad spent a lot of time in Japan and bought some decent translations of Basho and others. The immediacy grabbed me, though i didn’t get the philosophical aspects then snd likely miss most of those allusions now.)


  9. I like it. The syllabic pattern associated with Japanese haiku is not something that needs to be kept when writing English haiku; Jack Kerouac wrote some of the finest English haiku, and he eschewed that pattern. It suits Japanese, but it doesn’t really suit English; I retain it because without guidelines I just get sloppy. Yours is a good English haiku, better than the one I wrote above.


  10. Robert, a not-haiku (really like yours, btw):

    Low crescent moon
    Orion overhead –
    spring equinox.

    (Not quite yet, per the caldendar…)


  11. Now that’s a poem.

    Although for a moment, when you went, Ooh! Ooh!, I thought I was back in the 70’s and you were Horshack.


  12. Natural genetic changes in a species are very slow to occur, yes. But we as a species have reached a point where we are on the cusp of being able to speed up genetic changes in ourselves; if memory is not genetically important, because technology, artificial intelligence, can do it for us, it’s possible that we will ignore and neglect memory capacity in preference of some other qualities. Perhaps we will discover how to transfer our own consciousness from the human body to transistors and cyberspace; that would be a major leap in consciousness, though whether or not it would still be human consciousness is up for debate. It would be transhumanism, I guess.

    Flights of imagination.


  13. Ooh! Ooh! Robert, I just heard a song today by Gordon Bok and Cindy Kallett, a poem by William Carlos Williams put to music.

    “Peace on Earth.”

    The Archer is wake!
    The Swan is flying!
    Gold against blue
    An Arrow is lying.
    There is hunting in heaven— 5
    Sleep safe till tomorrow.

    The Bears are abroad!
    The Eagle is screaming!
    Gold against blue
    Their eyes are gleaming! 10
    Sleep safe till tomorrow.

    The Sisters lie
    With their arms intertwining;
    Gold against blue 15
    Their hair is shining!
    The Serpent writhes!
    Orion is listening!

    Gold against blue
    His sword is glistening! 20
    There is hunting in heaven—
    Sleep safe till tomorrow.


  14. Speaking of Star Trek: this is from the episode “Court Martial,” Stardate 2947.3.

    (Kirk is about to pour himself a drink.)
    COGLEY: You Kirk?
    KIRK: Yes. (Notices the piles of books everywhere) What is all this?
    COGLEY: I figure we’ll be spending some time together, so I moved in.
    KIRK: I hope I’m not crowding you.
    COGLEY: What’s the matter? Don’t you like books?
    KIRK: Oh, I like them fine, but a computer takes less space.
    COGLEY: A computer, huh? I got one of these in my office. Contains all the precedents. The synthesis of all the great legal decisions written throughout time. I never use it.
    KIRK: Why not?
    COGLEY: I’ve got my own system. Books, young man, books. Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something. My library. Thousands of books.
    KIRK: And what would be the point?
    COGLEY: This is where the law is. Not in that homogenised, pasteurised, synthesiser. Do you want to know the law, the ancient concepts in their own language, Learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha 3? Books.
    KIRK: You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who’s escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law.
    COGLEY: Right on both counts. Need a lawyer?
    KIRK: I’m afraid so.


  15. I think losing our brains because of technology is not really going to happen soon. Isn’t one of the main tenets of biology that there is no (or virtually no) inheritance of acquired characteristics? Every baby born for quite some centuries will at least start off with our robust brains, even if they atrophy as the child grows into a Borg. 🙂


  16. I agree that there never were any golden ages, of anything. But people definitely had better memory in former times. The decrease in organic memory capacity, caused by the increase in technological memory capacity, is something that could change the very character of human consciousness, psychologically and biologically, perhaps even genetically.


  17. Ok, I am going to differ here:Ever seen a photo of public transport (say a train) from the 50’s or earlier? Full of men in suits, each one with his nose in a newspaper. Which often was discarded right after, leaving the cities look filthy. So no, there was no golden age of neighborly engagement. However, I consider you guys my neighbours who I engage with through these technological wonders. I have never been lucky enough to find many people like me in the places I live – but in the last 15 years or so, the advent of blogs, then the so-called Web 2.0 was a great outcome.

    I have used the web to discover new books, authors, ideas etc.

    And then there is the irony of a slightly luddite post written … on the internet.


  18. Wow. Your reference to KFI drive time brought back wonderful memories of Lohman and Barkley, KFI’s morning drive-time personalities when I lived in Southern California years ago. They were terrific, with a terrific supporting cast including W. Eva Schneider (the poetry lady), Maynard Farmer, Mrs. Dickey Bansback, and Rear-Admiral Bruno I. Abernathy, deceased.

    Sorry this has nothing to do with your comment, or with this splendid conversation in general. But it was a great memory trigger.

    And, in light of this conversation, why on earth do I remember this, of all things?!


  19. Were I going to a party at your home, I wouldn’t bring a book, because I am pretty sure that you have plenty there that I could pull down from the shelf. I have no idea what your book interests are, but that’s OK. Any book person will have something for me, even if I have to stretch for it, and that is all to the good.

    Oh, and I fibbed a little. I would bring a book, but I would leave it in the car, just in case.


  20. Or, “Star Trek” go it right and we’re all headed to the Borg Collective. (I for one would prefer using my fingers to count!)

    Welcome, my son, welcome to the Machine…


  21. +++1000.

    I’m a highly sensitive introvert who knits in social situations to feel more comfortable, but in certain settings that’s just too weird of a thing to do. Through the Kindle app on my phone I can escape into a good book but not appear any more antisocial than the rest of the folks with their noses in their screens.


  22. “It helps me remember that I’m a part of God’s creation, rather than a machine designed to earn, spend, and consume as much as possible before my batteries run out.” Great sentence!


  23. That works, Richard. And yet — and this is just my own prejudice, not a thought-out judgment — I wouldn’t be offended if someone was reading a book at my party, but I would if I thought he was checking his email. I’m not sure why that is.


  24. Very interesting article, DZ, and a subject I’ve been mulling over for many years now. It is true – the new knowledge economy values the person who can access the most accurate information the quickest. That means google (or Bing – google has been so slow lately that i switched search providers). Does that bode well for human development? To early to give a scientific answer, but I have my suspicions…


  25. I’m with you on the name thing, Ann. The worst is when you’re talking to someone whose name you should know (and who clearly is assuming you know who they are), but for some reason or another that information has fallen out the back of your head. I usually just proceed as if I know exactly who they are and hope to slip by undetected. Not entirely honest, but less embarrassing.
    During those rare breaks from the hustle and bustle, I truly enjoy ditching all the modern stuff and getting out in the woods. There’s no sound quite like wind through the leaves when there are no manmade noises intruding. It helps me remember that I’m a part of God’s creation, rather than a machine designed to earn, spend, and consume as much as possible before my batteries run out.


  26. There is a definite silver lining to all this for me. I am bookish and an introvert. It used to be that I would frequently find myself in some enforced social or quasi-social setting, where once I reached my socializing limit I would want to go find a secluded spot, or at least a corner of the room, and refresh myself by reading a book for a while. But this required carrying a book (easier in winter, where a coat pocket could easily take a paperback), and the mere fact of sitting in a corner reading would draw unwanted attention. Some well-meaning but misguided soul would conclude that I am shy (I’m not: I’m introverted. They aren’t the same thing) and try to draw me in to whatever activity was going on. This completely missed the point.

    Now it is all different. I can carry my Kindle with me anywhere and nobody thinks it the least bit odd. I can discreetly–or openly–read it pretty much any time and any place I like, and again nobody thinks it weird or unsocial. They might if they realized I was reading a book rather than checking my email or sports scores, but they don’t have to know that. Being a bookish introvert is a lot easier nowadays.


  27. I’ve got a flip-phone I used when travelling or in case I need to make a distress call.

    And I constantly have to dodge around Smartphone Statues and Smartphone Zombies doing the Thorazine Shuffle, eyes never looking up from the screen in their hand. (Sometimes the thumbs are moving, txtg away.)

    I think TIME Magazine when doing an article on “Children of Millenials”, had a kid in a stroller staring at his smartphone. (The parents are just out of picture; all you can see is one hand pushing the stroller and the other holding a smartphone at an angle where the screen is facing where their heads should be.)

    No wonder ISIS figures They Will Win. You could be dragging them off for slaughter and they would be txtg away and uploading all the way.


  28. A couple months ago, KFI morning drive-time cited a study which showed extreme anxiety and panic attacks when separated from their smartphone (i.e. from the Cloud). The commentary was “It’s Their Bwankie”.

    If you want to see a panic attack, hide someone’s smartphone.


  29. If you were to get inside the event horizon of a black hole, you would find at the center someone staring at their smartphone.


  30. “What we’ve outsourced to Google and what we’ve kept in our own brains says a lot about what matters to us, I suspect. What doesn’t much matter to me I don’t bother remembering; that’s what Google is for. What does matter to me, I try to hold on to.” Good point, Randy. But what if it is no longer a choice what we remember; what if the capacity to remember is atrophying through lack of use? That’s what concerns me.

    Here’s an article about the development through use of the physical centers of memory in the brain — working on memory actually makes the hippocampus measurably larger. Someone who had never had to memorize would be lacking. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/london-taxi-memory/


  31. IMO, it’s mostly older Gen X and Boomers texting while driving…

    I’ve seen things. Scary things. Things you couldn’t possibly imagine…


  32. What we’ve outsourced to Google and what we’ve kept in our own brains says a lot about what matters to us, I suspect. What doesn’t much matter to me I don’t bother remembering; that’s what Google is for. What does matter to me, I try to hold on to. At times, though, I’ve come to realize that important things are not in my head, and my use of Google reflects a sort of mental sloth. Damaris, since you are a teacher and used to giving assignments, I have one for you. A follow-up to this article on technology, our (spiritual) priorities, and mental sloth!

    As to the Internet and the future. . .

    Human beings always imagine the future to be more of what they know now in the present. If you look at pictures of the 1938/39 World’s Fair in New York, for example, you’re struck by how much “the future” looks like 1938 and how “the future” seemingly had no world wars in view. Likewise, who would have known in 1980 that the USSR would be over and done ten years later, and remember the guy who wrote then an article that claimed we were at the “end of history”? G.K. Chesterton’s game of “Cheat the Prophet” is a clever reminder that the future is a mystery and a crapshoot. As Chesterton noted, people listen attentively and even nod approvingly as they listen to “experts” describe the future, and then go off and do something entirely different. For all I know, in the future we could be adding and subtracting using our fingers and an abacus. Or, “Star Trek” go it right and we’re all headed to the Borg Collective. (I for one would prefer using my fingers to count!)


  33. Those who advocate much more time spent out of doors have observed that if you remove access to electronic devices, people become calmer, more attentive to their natural surroundings and more social within a week. I wouldn’t worry so much that there would be suicides and such, if that is our normal response to the lack of electronic connectedness. Indeed, in most disasters, electricity is the first thing to go and people come out and help one another.

    As for names and dates though, I always had a difficult time with them though I went to school before all of that. For many of us, those are details much less important than overarching themes, plot lines and character traits. In fact, I have trouble remembering names in the rest of life as well.


  34. In your first comment, you wrote: ” And it’s not just the younger people; I see many older people doing the same thing.”

    Combined with your texting comment, today I actually saw a 70-something TEXTING WHILE DRIVING!!! I wanted to ram him off the road!


  35. I always enjoy the irony of reading articles on the internet about the potential harms of technology. 😉

    That said, good article, Damaris!

    –> “But if they have a hard time left to their own devices for a class period, what would they do if they were in a prison camp for a decade? Or in a more likely scenario, if they had a prolonged power outage?”

    I recommend the sci-fi books “Hyperion” and “Fall of Hyperion” by Dan Simmons. One fascinating element of those books is the sudden loss of all technological advancements.

    But people are amazingly resilient.


  36. Damaris, you are such a good observer of our times and make us think. There are moments when I’ve dredged up from the recesses of my not very great memory some bit of information that was timely and helpful or just plain interesting as it related to something else I was pondering. I have thought to myself that my kids would never know it because they’d been raised in a completely different culture. I know that “form follows function” in many facets of life. We function in cyberspace right now, thus all the smart everything … from phones to houses to cars. If all those things suddenly went away, we’d revert to old forms because our functions had changed. The sad thing is that much knowledge would be lost, the same as tragically burned ancient libraries with all their ancient knowledge.


  37. –> “Prayer – hey, there’s an app for that, isn’t there?”

    Reminds me of the book an acquaintance of mine recently wrote (shameless plug)…

    “Church: Is There an App for That? Exploring Aspects of Authentic Body Life”

    It’s a good read.


  38. ” In some bizarre way this is both a desire for community and a retreat from community. ”

    good insight, STEPHEN


  39. Joseph — I agree about tests. Every test I give, I hand out — and post online — a study sheet of exactly everything they will be required to memorize and to do. It’s not that they were blindsided — they thought they did know it.


  40. I live in Wash DC and it is funny to get on the Metro at rush hour and watch fully half the passengers on the train hyp-NO-tized by their little devices, index fingers at attention, scrolling away. And what are they mostly doing? Texting, Facebook, tweeting. Social media. In some bizarre way this is both a desire for community and a retreat from community.

    Ironies abound. We take a technological innovation designed for almost instantaneous communication and spend all our time setting up firewalls on it like militias establishing roadblocks in a third World Country. We have a conduit for every far reaching idea possible and yet our discourse is saturated in trivia.

    What’s fascinating about technology is the seeming inevitability of it. Did anybody sit down for even five seconds and ask themselves if they really needed a cell phone?


  41. The replacement of physical keypads by touchscreens has also made touch-texting a thing of the past, making texting while driving exponentially more dangerous.


  42. I think you’re onto something there, MZ.
    When it comes to gathering information, we’ve quickly gone from panning the stream for gold to strip mining the whole mountain range. The sheer volume of data we encounter on a daily basis is just too much for our brains to hold or sort out. And to remain functional in this changing environment, we’re having to rely more and more on technology to do the searching, sorting, and storing for us.
    And I suspect it is actually reducing our brains’ capacity to seek out, sort, and store necessary information — kinda like the way the advent of fast food and grocery stores greatly reduced the average individual capacity to feed oneself without tapping into an artificial external system.
    If the big machine ever throws a rod, I’m not sure I want to be around when millions of hungry, scared, confused, but very well armed techno-junkies in withdrawal start trying to figure how to feed themselves.


  43. Hi DAMARIS,

    I get confused about the names of authors and the titles of their works WITHIN certain ‘types’ of literature. I suppose it is because the genre breeds a similarity that is most recognized as ‘type’, rather than for me, a more specific identification of ‘author’ and ‘work’ . . .

    I sometimes get Thoreau and Emerson confused. And I have searched endlessly for a poem passage that I had remembered as being by Emily Dickinson that likely I will find attributed to another author, although who IS comparable to Emily???

    I think if we go deeply into a piece of literature so that it becomes a part of ‘who we are’, we may forget ‘names’ and ‘references’ but there is a REASON why that piece of literature resonates personally. I will leave you with this explanation from Emerson himself, which I’m sure will ring a bell for you:
    ” A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

    Whatever makes great literature ‘great’, I think it must put its roots down very deep into the human psyche, so deep that when the work of the author is encountered, we are actually drawing from that deeper pool that nourishes our own humanity. And in this way, something of creation works through the great writers who avail themselves of a source open to us all. Don’t be too hard on your students, DAMARIS, if the written works were deep enough to matter, maybe a mutual human consciousness surviving from Eden was the true inspiration that was revealed after all.


  44. after cramming what’s left of my brain’s memorization capacity with very interesting wine knowledge during my master’s degree pursuit, i know just how much more effort it takes to make something ‘stick’ in the ol’ grey matter at my age!

    and thank God (and Al Gore) for inventing the internet! it is a very useful, and vitally convenient repository of easily accessible information. much of the research done today is how to extract and properly cite such information, without the need to memorize it…

    even the very interesting wine information that i’m passionate about had a half-life of say, 20 minutes until the next class/topic. old age and memorization is almost an oxymoron. it takes additional effort, consistency and plain ol’ repetition to get something to remain in both short and long-term memory. having electronic/digital storage of information, papers I’ve written, presentations and projects, etc. is so much more convenient than leafing through my hard copy equivalents stashed away in some dusty box. i wouldn’t have been able to complete my MSc Agribusiness recently if i had to resort to the same information gathering process needed to earn my BS OrnHort 30+ years ago! the hand writing of notes, and hard copy search in the library through large volumes of printed materials like i did for my senior project would’ve simply exhausted me. whew! and just think of all those trees being sacrificed for the printed copies! i’m one that does feel modern technology is wonderful.

    Damaris: if you had told your students there would be a section of the test that would require them to identify the author and title of selected passages, the success rate would have been what you expected from your best pupils. even short-term memory recall for such occasions is achievable for even the below-average student. if such identification were really that important, emphasizing the expectation a more honest approach before making the observations offered in your post. being blind-sided on tests was one of my graduate student pet-peeves. however, if you did inform them of the expectation, and they simply let it in one ear and out the other, then shame on them…



  45. I wonder if what’s really going on is that our selective memory is a coping strategy to help us digest the sheer amount of information that we are exposed to every day. The reason that reading things on the Internet or taking in information from other media is so addicting is probably that we’re looking for:

    – ideas that confirm what we already believed
    – things that allow us to feel righteous anger and indignation
    – new and interesting ideas or information
    – etc.

    The trouble is that to get that “fix” of encountering some nugget of information that gives us the feelings we’re looking for, we have to dredge through a tremendous amount of extraneous information. So, our brains have gotten very good at filtering out anything that does not provoke that sort of response in us. (And, that same mental filtering effect also makes us more likely to simply ignore any information we do not like, which is why it is becoming harder and harder to have conversations across our political and theological divides.)


  46. Or in a more likely scenario, if they had a prolonged power outage?

    My writing partner expects a rash of suicides if the outage lasts more than a couple days.

    I figure that’d be after the falling over dead the first few minutes after they lose the App which tells them to “breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… breathe out…”


  47. “The last invention in human history will be the Holodeck.”
    — Dilbert (spoken in the days before SOcial MediA)


  48. Incidentally, that guy who wrote that book on television made the point that this fragmentation of our mind began with the telegram and the way it delivered its newsreels disjointed and without context!


  49. Gosh yeah, I make it a point try to keep my brain elastic memorizing passages, songs, studying languages, but my stamina is a lot lower than it was when I was a kid.
    One of the things, in addition to a deteriorated memory, instant access to everything always has done to my generation is an inability to ride a single train of thought to a conclusion. Like I’m constantly clicking between tabs in my mind!
    Anyway, thank you for ending the piece on an encouraging thought…Danielle?


  50. “When virtual reality becomes cheaper than dating, the human race will go extinct.” – Dogbert


  51. Substance addiction is a good model for understanding the hold that information technology has on people’s attention. And the addiction seems to develop as quickly and totally as that to heroin. After all, only the most desperate junkie would ever try to shoot up while driving a car, but texting and driving has become so widespread that it seems commonplace now.


  52. It continues to seem strange to me to look around and see so many people with their noses and eyes in their devices at every spare moment. And it’s not just the younger people; I see many older people doing the same thing. I think it’s not just a matter of convenience and outsourcing brains; I think it has to do with altering a reality that is often monotonous and uninspiring into one that holds interest and fascination. Just wait until virtual reality technology becomes minimized and conveniently portable; the human race will be well on the way to cyborgian reality then.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: