Why it’s okay to outsource your memory to the cloud

Science magazine has published some research into how our memories are influenced by the availability of computers as a source of information, and this has some in a tizzy about the implications of outsourcing our brains. Author Nick Carr, for example — who has written a whole book about how the web is changing the way we think and making us more shallow — says he worries this phenomenon is going to make us less human in some way. But is that really a risk? I don’t think so. I, for one, am glad to outsource the duty of remembering miscellaneous facts to the cloud, because it leaves me free to do more important things.

In a nutshell, the Columbia University psychologists who published the study performed a number of experiments designed to test whether subjects remembered certain things better or worse when they were told that the information — such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain” — would be stored in a computer somewhere or would be available through a search engine. Not surprisingly perhaps, people’s memories were somewhat less reliable when they knew the answers they were seeking would be stored for later retrieval (there are more details at the Columbia website).

Implanting forgetfulness?

Carr says he’s worried that by losing these facts and details we store elsewhere, we will become less human in some way, or lose some core of ourselves. But is that really what’s happening? I don’t think so. It’s not like I’m suddenly going to forget my son’s first steps (oh, that’s right — I have daughters!) because I use Google (s goog) to look up who starred in that movie we watched a couple of years ago, or to figure out who the head of the United Nations is. It’s worth remembering that the invention of writing triggered similar fears, as Plato reminds us in The Phaedrus, quoting the King of Thebes:

If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls;they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.

Carr also makes the argument in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” that we are becoming not just dumber as a result of the web, but also (supposedly) less interesting, because our brains are being trained to focus on the ephemeral and the trivial instead of the important things we should be spending time on. I took issue with this kind of fear at the time, as did some others, and I think Carr is being similarly alarmist in this case. Besides, if we use the cloud to remember the trivial and ephemeral for us, wouldn’t that be a good thing by Carr’s definition?

Do we still need to memorize things?

I know that in my parents’ time, memorization of huge lists of facts and figures and Shakespearean sonnets was standard, because that was the criteria by which knowledge was judged. But what difference does it really make if I can’t remember when the War of 1812 was? (that’s a joke, by the way). Is my experience of the things that matter in life going to be impaired because I don’t know who signed the Magna Carta? I can see how this would be a problem if a trivia game suddenly comes up while I am camping in the woods, but other than that, I don’t see why I shouldn’t outsource that to the cloud — the same way lots of people used to outsource it to Encyclopedia Britannica.

As one commenter on Google+ mentioned when I shared the Science magazine article in my stream, the benefit of having something like the Internet available at all times is that it is the most comprehensive collection of knowledge ever invented (although obviously not all of it is correct). How can that not be a good thing? Said Justin Fogarty:

The plus side is that the whole of human knowledge is nearly at our fingertips. I will not miss card catalogs, the Dewey decimal system or heavy book bags.

Computers can’t really replicate memory anyway. All they can do (so far, at least) is store facts — but facts are not memories. What real memories are made up of is smells and sounds and emotions, and no computer or cloud-based system can store those things. But what the cloud can do quite well is store my phone numbers and the photos I took on a particular day or the tweets I sent (something an app called Momento is extremely good at) and leave me free to relive the memories associated with those facts.

To me, that’s a fair trade — the cloud remembers all the boring and mundane details and facts of my life (yes, I use Facebook to remember when people’s birthdays are, as I expect a lot of people do) and I get to focus on the things that are really important.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Stefan and Tim O’Brien