When you think about the power of your brain and how we learn, memorise and recall all those facts, it can get very confusing. Having taught for nearly 25 years and trained some of the brightest professionals over last 10 years, I believe that knowledge is divided in two distinct areas. We can either know about a subject ourselves or we know where we can retrieve information on that subject. The massive amount of information available online has opened an infinite library of easily and quickly retrievable information with simple search engines. I like to think of it as an organic external hard drive, an outsourced memory we can plug in at any time. Some have argued that the internet dilutes the most traditional kind of knowledge: knowing a subject ourselves. They argue that in some way it makes our brains less efficient, diminishing our intelligence and destroying our inner hard drives and memory.
You may remember (if you are of a certain age) that when you were young, you knew by heart the phone number of your closest friends. Since the introduction of digital directories on smartphones there is no longer any reason to memorise numbers by heart. On the other hand, how many hundreds more contacts do you have now compared to then thanks to the digital directories? In reality, how much more connected are you? The real deal of the information age is not that it allows us to know more, but that it allows us to know less in terms of depth of what we know, as mentioned by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, in his famous 2006 NY Times article The Outsourced Brain.
“Memory? I’ve externalised it.” He said, “I am one of those baby boomers who are making this the “It’s on the Tip of My Tongue Decade.” But now I no longer need to have a memory, for I have Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia. Now if I need to know some fact about the world, I tap a few keys and enjoy the vast resource of the external mind.”
I think the positive side of this is that we are free to expand our awareness of subjects we did not have space, or availability, to explore before. Our memory now has a different function: it is a digital index that remembers the existence of a subject and what are the best leads to find information on that subject. I too had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more facts. Then I realised that the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less.
It provides us with external cognitive servants, silicon memory systems if you will, with collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We thus can give these servants the massive raw data and liberate ourselves to think, explore and be creative. You can use your brain to learn new skills, the soft skills that are the true measure of success.
Your outsourced memory (the internet, the cloud and more) allows you to be aware of the existence of information you would never have come across before when you were limited to what your inner memory could hold. It allows you to increase the quantity (and thus the quality) of the information that you can process because you do not always have to worry about memorising every single detail of it. It allows you to use more brain power in linking concepts and applying them rather than remembering them. It empowers you to think and process information faster because your brain has the space to hold links to so much different information, and in doing so it expands your subjective time. Back in the analogue era, the difference between a deep brain and a shallow brain was the availability of information and the choice of whether to take in that information or not came second.
As an educationalist and technophile, combined with my outsourced memory I have the capacity to think deeper. Now that (nearly) everything is available, the power is back to you: it is up to you to take responsibility of what content goes into your mind and how you use your outsourced memory.
Now you have begun to outsource your brain and now have room to do something rather special with your neo-cortex. Enjoy.
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