January 23, 2013

The Second Technological Assault on Memory

I can’t prove it, but I have a hunch that technology has, once again, weakened our capacity to remember things.

I say “once again” because it seems clear that the invention and deployment of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, as a first assault on memorization, has made the routine kind of auditory-oral memorization (of the “oral tradition”) that preceded it unnecessary and inefficient.

Ask yourself this: If printed resumes, job ads, employee manuals, organizational charts, advertising brochures, quarterly reports, time sheets, corporate prospectuses, the simple business card and countless other printed tools of business did not exist, how could businesses function?

Clearly, the demands on, and therefore the performance of, memory would soar—perhaps to levels reportedly once common among those said to have memorized their lengthy tribal histories, mythologies, countless herbs and their properties or holy texts (especially important when copies of the latter were still very scarce and very perishable).

Attack on the Left

Let’s call that first print attack on memory the “left-brain assault”, since linear print drastically reduced the need for linear memorization and recitation of memorized material. These days, prodigious feats of memorization are rare, entertaining and isolated  “Rain Man” stunts, not routine, essential community performances and services (save for exceptions like various religious services, e.g., those performed through flawless rabbinical recitation of the Talmud).

In being a sequential, linear surrogate for sequential left-lobe speech and memorization, the printed word became a memory crutch that has evolved into a prosthetic for lost memorization capacities.

In the modern print-based economy, the main thing most of us have to remember is where we put the fax manual, the business cards, the applicant resumes and our Word files in order to access the information we need. Information “Rain ManAgement” through prodigious sequential (or even basic single-fact) recall is not needed.

Attack on the Right

The second, more recent, attack on memory is photography. We no longer have to remember what we see, because we have, in the photograph, a permanent physical record of it that exists outside our brains. Interestingly, this replacement of physiological visual memory with photographic records represents a right-brain assault on our capacity to memorize. That’s because the photograph generally records data in a mode typical of right-brain functioning: simultaneous data processing.

Like the right brain, a photograph processes and represents images as whole “gestalts” of simultaneously recorded data, not as sequences of data dots. For example, recognizing a face is a matter of more or less instantaneously integrating nose, eyes, ears, chin, etc., in what appears to be simultaneous, parallel processing mode (allowing for follow-up or accessory eye darting to check out any puzzling points, e.g., an unexpected streak of gray hair or a zit).

Unlike the old TV cathode tube that zigzagged its beams across a silver-backed screen to create an image, our right brain seems to function more like a camera, to the extent that it records data points simultaneously, rather than sequentially.

Hence, to the extent that the right-brain-friendly photograph replaces that brain’s memorization tasks, the technology of photography represents a “right-brain assault” on memory—or, to put it differently, an assault on right-brained memorization.

Job Opportunities for Poor Memorizers

If photographs really do weaken visual memory, better facial-recognition skills cans be expected in those localities or contexts in which attaching photographs to resumes is either prohibited or otherwise discouraged. There, recruiters will have to depend more upon their visual recall of candidates, much as the candidates have always had to, except when a photo business card has been offered by the recruiter.

With the deployment of increasingly sophisticated facial-recognition software in police and security services, applicants with already poor facial-recognition abilities can expect two things: 1. to have an easier time doing their jobs; 2. see their facial-recognition abilities deteriorate further.

Offsetting the Damage

Ironically, the subversion of right-lobe image memorization by photography can be offset by old-fashioned left-lobe verbal memorization. The reason is that, according to some accounts of what the “unconscious mind” is, e.g., behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner’s take on Freud, much of what is unconscious is merely that which is unverbalized. Hence, if you verbalize what you see, you are likelier to remember it, even if you have a photo of it.

In my own experiments with memorization of visual input, e.g., the view from the top of one stretch of the Great Wall of China, verbalizing the details of what I’ve seen has worked pretty well as compensation for the memory-laziness or other limitations induced by photography.

Whether or not taking photos of pages of text in books will weaken my memorization of the sequential information in the text, or, instead, of the simultaneous image-information is hard to predict.

Given the damage done to my memory and memorization by dependency on books and on cameras, my best guess is that it would worsen both.

To protect and strengthen your own memorization abilities and memory, I can recommend a first step.

After reading this article…

….memorize it.

Read more in Workplace Technology

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).