Monday, October 29, 2007

How to know things

I don't find myself saying this very often, but I really enjoyed David Brooks' editorial about the way digitizing information has changed the way people learn and collect knowledge over time. As Brooks says:
Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.
This really reflects my feelings pretty well, but Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon isn't ready to buy it. She responded in a post about Brooks' editorial:
Except that you already were part of the large external mind. The digitalization of it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of outsourcing the memory. Everything Brooks mentions, from iTunes to Tivo setting your schedule to cell phones replacing Rolodexes to GPS devices has an ink and paper counterpart, or at least an analog one when it comes to recorded music. Though sheet music predates recorded music and is, yes, another externalized memory device.
I have to say that I'm surprised that anyone very heavily involved with the Internet could make this argument. I wonder if my famously bad ability to retain facts predisposes me to identifying with Brooks' feelings, but I can say that the ability to quickly access information has had a profound effect on the way I think about information and what kind of hold I need to keep on it. Brooks uses the example of phone numbers, which many have observed that people do not store in their heads anymore, but on cell phones. At this moment, I can think of three phone numbers - mine, my husband's, and my parents' land line. I remember knowing others as little as two or three years ago, but I was happy to cede that knowledge to my cell phone.

I have a naturally weak grip on the facts that I learn, and it's only by connecting them with other, more vital pieces of information that I can remember anything at all. Any class I've taken where simple memorization was important was a class I did not do well in. I'm not sure if it's inability or disinclination, but my abilities with rote memory are very unimpressive. I've had to adapt by creating systems for remembering things, rather than keeping The Things I Know in a list in my head.

For example, I work with a sort of archaic computer program that stores information about diagnostic cases in my lab. It requires the use of myriad codes for differing functions, all written by different people with different motivations. It's not systematic in the least, and drives me nuts. My boss, when coming up with a new code for, say, a new test that needs to be ordered, likes to insert little jokes into his codes, and says it helps him remember it more easily. To me, it just means that I have to remember a code and a joke, neither of which is connected to anything else, and that's twice as much work as any random code.

Brooks isn't talking about the existence of written information. Amanda's right that it's old hat. What's new is the ability to rely on information being more easily accessible through Google or speed dial than through your own memory. It's like an open-book test in school, which only a fool mistakes for a cakewalk. Yes, the information is all in front of you, but if you don't have a familiarity with how the book is structured, and at least a few central formulas, you're boned. Your jittery, test-anxiety-ridden brain is at least then free to function at a higher level of complexity than simple recall.

Tangentially: check out my favorite of Lev Yilmaz' Tales of mere existence.

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