Saturday, September 21, 2013

Slate: transactive memory, or why we rely on Google and each other to remember things we normally don't bother remembering

This is, in a way, an answer to a question most of you probably didn't ask.  :)

So humanity has always relied on coping devices to handle the details for us. We’ve long stored knowledge in books, paper, Post-it notes.

But when it comes to quickly retrieving information on the fly, all day long, quickly? We don’t rely on documents for the details as much as you’d think. No, we rely on something much more immediate: other people.

And a bit further along:

... Transactive groups don’t just remember better: They also analyze problems more deeply, too, developing a better grasp of underlying principles.

We don't remember in isolation—and that's a good thing. "Quite simply, we seem to record as much outside our minds as within them," as Wegner has written. "Couples who are able to remember things transactively offer their constituent individuals storage for and access to a far wider array of information than they would otherwise command." These are, as Wegner describes it in a lovely phrase, "the thinking processes of the intimate dyad."

Memory is often far more social than individual.  This is why the social memory of a time and place, once established, becomes nearly impossible to overturn even if the shared social memory turns out to be completely wrong on further inspection.  To put it in nerdy terms, comics author Steven Grant has said that Peter Parker is imagined to be the gawky awkward kid who doesn't look that good and has trouble with girls.  Never mind that all his girlfriends have looked like models and that he turned into a pretty boy in the hands of John Romita or Gil Kane.  The imagination or halo effect about Spiderman has persisted over against any actual stories or drawings within the comics themselves.  What the collective memory of Spiderman is thus has nothing to do with the comics and yet is in its way immutable. 

What’s more, transactive memory isn’t some sort of cognitive Get Out of Jail Free card. High school students, I’m sorry to tell you: You still need to memorize tons of knowledge. That’s for reasons that are civic and cultural and practical; a society requires shared bodies of knowledge. And on an individual level, it’s still important to slowly study and deeply retain things, not least because creative thought—those breakthrough ahas—come from deep and often unconscious rumination, your brain mulling over the stuff it has onboard

There are a lot of people, too many people, who think that the transactive memory options of search engine memory give them access to information about that certain subject that must be right.  They'll read some Wikipedia entries on the subject and imagine that all the sources were accurately quoted, quoted in context, and that therefore things must be reliable.  No, not really, not unless we're talking about Starscream in comics continuities and then Wikipedia proves frighteningly accurate.  Pick a more controversial or challenging topic with real-world implications and the results are different.

And ... maybe ... there's a subtext to this post about why somebody writes so frequently about a set of topics.  Facilitating the process of transactive memory and encouraging people to share things on record has a role in a healthily functioning social and cultural system. 

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