Friday, July 22, 2011

Technology and Memory

Andrew Sullivan recently posted this about Google and Memory:
The Internet is wreaking havoc on our memory skills, a new study finds. Nick Carr is all over it: If a fact stored externally were the same as a memory of that fact stored in our mind, then the loss of internal memory wouldn't much matter. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. When we form, or "consolidate," a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge. The associations, moreover, continue to change with time, as we learn more and experience more. As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but "the cohesion" which ties all those facts and experiences together. What is the self but the unique pattern of that cohesion?And, to invoke another metaphor, because the brain is like a muscle, taking away the tiny but countless opportunities to exercise it weakens its ability to perform the higher-level thinking that we can't use computers for.
I've been having a similar argument for years with some of my friends – whether the internet is making us smarter or dumber. In the Jewish context I often argue how Bar-Ilan's responsa project has made every single semi-competent former Yeshiva bachur (i.e myself) able to quickly research any topic and have an opinion. However the question of whether it is making us greater in Torah or not, remains somewhat open. Personally I can't imagine my torah study today without the internet as a backup for finding resources, articles and ready made opinions. However much can be said that this method of study hurts the ability for creativity in torah study – as we  lack having a large corpus of knowledge from which to draw from – and more importantly find new connections from.

This argument is far from new. In fact it goes all the way back to ancient Greece, with Plato/Socrates thoughts about the writing- which of course I had to Google to find:

Socr. I have heard it said, then, that at Naucratis in Egypt there lived one of the old gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis; and the name of the divinity was Theuth. It was he who first invented numbers and arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, dicing, too, and the game of draughts and, most particularly and especially, writing. Now the King of all Egypt at that time was Thamus who lived in the great city of the upper region which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes; the god himself they call Ammon. Theuth came to him and exhibited his arts and declared that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. And Thamus questioned him about the usefulness of each one; and as Theuth enumerated, the King blamed or praised what he thought were the good or bad points in the explanation. . . . When it came to writing, Theuth said, "This discipline, my King, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories: my invention is a recipe for both memory and wisdom." But the King said, "Theuth, my master of arts, to one man it is given to create the elements of an art, to another to judge the extent of harm and usefulness it will have for those who are going to employ it. And now, since you are father of written letters, your paternal goodwill has led you to pronounce the very opposite of what is their real power. The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it's not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you're equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth. Thanks to you and your invention, your pupils will be widely read without benefit of a teacher's instruction; in consequence, they'll entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment. They will also be difficult to get on with since they will have become wise merely in their own conceit, not genuinely so." . . .
Then any man who imagines that he has bequeathed an art to posterity because he put his views in writing, and also anyone who inherits such an "art" in the belief that any subject will be clear or certain because it is couched in writing such men will be utterly simple-minded. They must be really ignorant of Zeus Ammon's method of delivering prophetic truth if they believe that words put in writing are something more than what they are in fact: a reminder to a man, already conversant with the subject of the material with which the writing is concerned.Phaedr. Quite right.
Socr. Writing, you know, Phaedrus, has this strange quality about it, which makes it really like painting: the painter's products stand before us quite as though they were alive; but if you question them, they maintain a solemn silence. So, too, with written words: you might think they spoke as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever. Once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend; it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid. And when it is ill-treated or abused as illegitimate, it always needs its father to help it, being quite unable to protect or help itself.

So it seems with every major advance in technology there were those who feared it would ruin the mental ability of the young.  Jewish readers are probably reminded of how the sages feared that writing down the oral law, would similarly affect its passing down through the generations.  Today with our historic perspective it is clear that the oral law was saved by people disobeying the command not to write it down – however we have no tools to make a judgment on whether writing down the oral law also damaged the creative process of its students.. 

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