Day Planner-style organizers became a thing when I was in college. This was just a few years before “Smart Wizards” hit and long before Personal Digital Assistants and smartphones emerged as how people kept track of their contacts, to-do lists and calendars.
If you’re under the age of 30, here’s what an organizer looks like.
One of my professors (who was a woman in her 70s) wagged her finger at the class and said: “throw away your organizers.”
Her point was that you should memorize all your contacts’ phone numbers, birthdays, addresses, appointments, to-do items and all the rest. That sounds like crazy talk now, but at the time that’s something many people actually did.
Her point was that if you rely on an external system for remembering things, your mind would turn to mush and you would lose the capacity to remember such things.
I ignored her advice. But I remembered her reason for it this week when I learned about something called transactive memory.
Transactive memory is when groups share the remembering of things. For example, within a family, when mom is better than everyone else at remembering family birthdays, dad is better at remembering phone numbers and junior is best at remembering events.
And because of this, each family member tries less hard to remember the information they’re not best at and works harder to remember their specialty information, essentially distributing the load amongst themselves.
The result is that the task of remembering things is distributed. So when junior needs to recall someone’s birthday, he doesn’t try to remember. He instead tries to remember where mom is so he can ask.
People in my social networks are talking about transactive memory because of a paper being discussed in tech circles about a study that determined that the smartphones and Google and other sites degrade our memory precisely through this mechanism. Google doesn’t publish knowledge, for the most part, but makes those who do instantly accessible. So it’s like the whole world is our transactive memory family.
More to the point, the study looked at what the impulse is when people want to remember something. In the case of the college-age me, my first impulse when needing to know an upcoming event would not be to scan my own mind, but to open my day planner.
In my transactive memory family, the impulse would be to ask Junior. For many people now, especially younger people, the impulse is to turn to Google or some other online source instead of even trying to remember.
What’s interesting is that the extra step of first thinking about where information can be found online, then—as a last resort—scanning one’s own memory increases the amount of time it takes for people to remember things.
So as the time it takes to find things online declines, it also has the unexpected result of making the recalling of knowledge from one’s own brain slower.
What appears to be happening in aggregate is that with each passing year, more people are “remembering” information not by scanning their own memories but by scanning the collective online memory.
Transactive Memory Applies Technology to Free Up Your Mind
For kids who grow up with phones, tablets and the Internet from the start, memorizing just about anything seems obviously pointless.
Knowledge is being outsourced to the Internet. Thus people are finding that using the Internet as prosthetic memory is both faster and more reliable than using one’s own brain.
We’re just getting started down this road.
Now comes Google’s Knowledge Vault
Google is building the ultimate transactive memory service. It’s called the Knowledge Vault, an ambitious, scalable, self-learning knowledge machine. Google researchers unveiled a paper on the Knowledge Vault at the Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining in New York.
You’re probably already familiar with Google’s Knowledge Graph, which is a collection of human-curated databases (such as the CIA World Factbook and the Wikipedia).
The Knowledge Vault is a radical step forward because it’s machine-curated. It automatically gathers and combines information it finds on the Web, then uses a system of confidence to estimate how likely the knowledge is to be true.
The Knowledge Vault has harvested 1.6 billion facts so far, but only 271 million of them have more than a 90 percent chance of being right. Both numbers will keep increasing indefinitely.
Not only will the Knowledge Vault be able to answer direct questions where individual facts are returned as the answer (Question: “how old is Madonna?” Answer: “Madonna is 56 years old.”), but also mind the facts in a big data like way (Question: “What is the average age of living women who have had songs at the number-one spot on the Billboard Top 100?”)
Microsoft, Facebook and other companies are building similar technologies.
These knowledge machines will work day and night identifying information online, figuring out if they’re new pieces of information or whether they support or oppose existing knowledge in the system.
Meanwhile, these knowledge engines will be made available to everyone instantly via natural language queries through our wearable devices and mobile phones.
The Knowledge Vault type systems will keep getting better and faster. The wearable and mobile devices will be built into our cars, homes, clothing, jewelry and elsewhere. They will be everywhere. The price of these devices will plummet and their speed will just keep increasing.
As a result of all these trends, it’s fair to say that most general knowledge will be rendered obsolete. There will be no need to remember things and learn facts, for the most part.
This will be good and bad, of course—good because we can spend our educations on learning how to think and build things as well as understand concepts without spending all our time memorizing formulas, dates, names or facts of all kinds. Because those will always be right there with us at all times, available for instant recall.
In some ways, this transformation of how the human mind works through the outsourcing and collectivization of human memory is probably the most profound change technology will bring to our species in our lifetimes.
And the only way to avoid being assimilated, to paraphrase my professor, is to “throw away your smartphone.”
But we both know that’s not going to happen.