By Ron Bell
8:25 a.m.: on the way to an early meeting with the new boss. What topics will she cover? Last week’s email bulletin comes up quickly on the handheld. While poring over lines of text, the jostling train commute becomes more tolerable, if a bit cramped: sharing space with a slim, sexy laptop and friendly, rather large person named Pat who works in the office down the hall. Wait — was the name Pat or Sandy? No matter, just nod and smile, we’re almost there.
8:28 a.m.: standing at the front entrance to the office building. A frigid shock of panic strikes: the notebook! Gone. Never realized the shirt collar was so bloody tight, the necktie a noose. Where does Sandy, no Pat, where does this person work: an office phone number, perhaps? Long forgotten. Wait, the cell phone address book, under “S.” No, that’s not it. Look under “P.” Ah, there it is. “Yes,” comes the ever-so-cheerful response, “I picked it up after you rushed out in such a hurry. But to ensure its safe and pleasant return,” the voice concludes sweetly, “we absolutely must spend a pleasant hour together for lunch.”
How often have you tried to remember an emotionally charged experience and found that there were significant gaps in your memory? In times of boredom or distraction, how simple it is to lose focus and simply forget large portions that one hears and sees. Consider a chess game. Even an expert player does not require an exceptional memory; it is far more important to have a vast experience of the game, to understand the board in terms of possible scenarios rather than individual pieces. Where does such an understanding come from? Hours spent at the chess table, making mistakes and remembering successful maneuvers. In a memory process called “chunking,” eventually the aspiring expert comes to recognize patterns, understand the significance of clusters of pieces, and commit their positions to memory. A 1944 experiment by psychologist and chess master Adriaan de Groot confirms this reliance on memory, encapsulating the concept in the term “board reconstruction.”
Computing technologies allow for increased storage capacity: externalized memory for convenient future retrieval. As this capacity increases, along with fast, accurate methods of accessing data, humans become more efficiently able to store and build on past knowledge. From writing cuneiform symbols on stone tablets to scribbling shorthand notes on a tablet PC, the information stored by our technology allows us to overcome our human limitations.
Although we are now able to encode, store and retrieve more data than ever before, we are still saddled with our limited biological capacities for managing that data. Most of us still struggle to keep everything straight at times. From past presidents’ names to long division, even the most astute memory encounters sharp limitations.
In communication theory, an axiom sprung forth from a classic 1956 essay by George A. Miller that the human mind can attend to “seven, plus or minus two” objects at any given time. Hence, you will rarely see a well-designed website with a long menu scrolling down the page; the menu items will be broken down into well defined subsets, usually no larger than five items per subset. More recently, research has shown that the capacity for visual memory averages about four objects — not quite the vast quantity of information that you might expect a human brain to comprehend and consciously retain from a visual scene.
Digital storage boasts an impressive range of advantages in the world of ideas. These advances push forward from interconnected relational databases that warehouse vast stores of data, upward to cybernetic neural networks that “learn” and even incorporate the variables of incompleteness and uncertainty in their processing strategies. Computational metaphors of digital storage parallel the functions of human memory so tightly that they are often used in the study of cognitive psychology.
Learning is largely a process of creating accessible memories of the subject at hand. Human memory is not stored as a perfect record; rather, knowledge is “constructed” in an adaptive process. This process involves the integration of past experience with the present, interweaving existing ideas with new ones, changing thought patterns by building on, and sometimes replacing, older ideas. This is quite a contrast to the digital encoding strategies of computer systems, with their emphases on error-free transmission and flawless retrieval.
In principle, computer systems are able to create perfect copies that can be reproduced with little or no ambiguity, whereas human memories encompass environmental context and complex associations with past experiences. These associations and individual cues create an interplay of thought, emotion and belief. It is in this capacity that our minds move far beyond the “file cabinet” metaphors that are often used to describe computer learning and memory. However, as they arise from the human psyche, these intangible aspects of memory and experience are also potential sources of distortion and confusion.
We seem to overcome these limits using technology. Our “personal digital assistants” keep our appointments, notes, spreadsheets and documents. Our cell phones store precious contact information, text messages and pictures. Even the now-quaint pocket calculator performs tasks that would be cumbersome and laborious for an untrained mind. After all, nowadays who has the time?
Who indeed. As we store massive amounts of data using precise digital storage, the purpose would seem to be ease of access and simplicity of organization. This seemingly beneficial result of digital memory may nonetheless have significant caveats. As we learn to store more data, we must also find ways to process that data in order for it to become meaningful information.
In business, the reduction of repetition is crucial to the growth of an expanding enterprise. Less human intervention means fewer minds needed to sift through stores of data, resulting in reduced costs. In the personal realm, however, reduction of iterative thought may not always be a positive solution to our problems of memory: what to remember, and how to remember it.
We all know the horror stories of holidays spent cringing over videotapes of ancient family vacations. Every inane detail and excruciating moment is captured forever — to the dread and dismay of all but the person who stood behind the camera.
The real curiosity lies in our response to dear Aunt Maude’s dusty VHS cassettes. More often than sitting down to review these vacation videos, we usually choose not to watch them again and again. Instead, they are exiled to a forgotten corner of the attic. Contrast this with the act of sitting around a campfire or dinner table, recreating the memories in the reflected glow of our loved ones’ faces. Still boring? Maybe, but in this case, we take the time to refresh our understanding of our past — and of ourselves.
Our knowledge of the world becomes condensed into small mechanical spaces as we stuff our memories into computers and cell phones. We create “personalized” websites where we blithely upload our written and webcam’d streams of consciousness. Are we reducing mental clutter and keeping our minds open for new knowledge? Or are we accelerating our own process of forgetting to the point that our days become diluted by “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomena, in which we have to power up our computers to recall our memories?
As we learn to archive our thoughts, we have less need for organizing them. Organization is the mental equivalent of blowing the dust off the cover, flipping through pages and rediscovering what was then, in the unique new context of what is now. As we remove the need for the act of remembering, compressing time by becoming more efficient, do we become more fulfilled — or more confused? Is our self-perception confined to this moment, as our past becomes an obsolete set of data to be stored away and “archived” rather than relived and remembered? Or do we find a balance by using our computers as tools, enriching our experiences by enhancing the construction of our own mental worlds as a community of minds?
This may be a difficult balance to achieve. But if we are to keep our wits about us, play a skillful game of chess every now and then, and maintain our sense of what makes us who we are, it would serve us well to combine our flawed human minds and precise digital memories to create a more fulfilling picture of ourselves. And take an hour or so to have lunch with a friend whose name we would like to remember for a long time to come.