Thursday, April 01, 2010

Do we no longer need to remember stuff?

I read a book recently arguing that for the first time in human history we have recovery systems that are so cheap and easy it's harder for us to forget something than it is to remember it. When we're being informed of something or entertained by something these days we know that with a few clicks we can - and probably will - repeat the experience. I watched Arsenal-Barcelona last night knowing that I would be seeing it again and again. When Liverpool had a similar wake-up call from Red Star Belgrade in 1973 I was watching with the fierce concentration of someone who had to cram it all into the VCR at the back of my mind.

Do today's ubiquitous retrieval systems mean that our memory, like the hand that holds the pen, will eventually wither away into disuse? When you know you can find out anything you need to know with a couple of clicks, what's the need for retaining it in your head in the first place? Who knows phone numbers these days? When my kids ask how many days there are in the month and I launch into "thirty days hath September" they look at me as if I'm putting the question to a higher power. Will anyone in the future say "i before e except after c when the sound is ee" or "Richard of York gave battle in vain" or "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived"? Or will they just look it up?

Ten years ago I had to do a speech to a PRs conference. In order to get their attention I said they were going to be redundant in the future because all information would be obtained either from Google or The House Hippy, which is how I described the one person in the office old enough to remember the facts and, moreover, what those facts signified. I think I was righter than I knew.


  1. An outstanding article a couple of years ago in the Atlantic Monthly, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" addresses your questions very nicely.

  2. Also this, from last summer's Intelligent Life:

  3. I'm sure you're right.I don't think it's(all) age that has made my memory worse, but the fact that I use the internet a lot.I can't remember phone numbers, as they're all in my telephones' contact list, even though I used to be able to recite them.

    I'm also with Professor Susan Greenfield on this one:

  4. Phone numbers are a bit of a red herring. The number of digits mean we have would have trouble remembering them even if we tried to keep them in our head.

  5. Soon we will know nothing, but have access to everything....

  6. Claire, I'd take that Greenfield article with a healthy pinch of salt.

    Her argument, such as it is, is that meaning implies narrative, and that therefore an absence of narrative must be literally meaningless seems spurious in the extreme.

    She seems to have a garden variety animus against Facebook, computer games, Twitter etc.