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When you store things digitally, you actually lose them

Evan Baehr

Over the last twenty four hours I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which left me concerned that, despite degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, I am on a path toward a brain that doesn’t work.

The idea. Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media and partly the inspiring philosophy of Carr’s work, argues that our tools end up numbing whatever part of our body they “amplify.” The power loom left weavers without manual dexterity.  The mechanical plows left farmers with no tactile understanding of soil.  Carr explores the next application of this thesis: if computers and the internet are meant to amplify the brain, do they also numb it?

Previous inventions–the book and the calculator–enabled greater human understanding and materially advanced the cause of mankind, Carr argues.   With the book, humans were able to communicate (write) and understand (read) across time and place, eliminating the need to obtain a rare physical copy or, even worse, find someone to recite it.   With the calculator, students could stop spending hours on long division and instead devote time to calculus.  But the internet is different: it enables us to outsource our brains - or at least the entire set of facts, images, and stories – to external storage.  Although this outsourcing might seem efficient because it allows humans to focus on higher order thinking (e.g. combining the images, telling narratives with the facts, etc.), outsourcing actually robs us of the very act that enables us to do the higher order thinking in the first place: the neural process of committing “data” from short term memory to long term memory.  While remembering things seems unnecessary and even irrational in an age of cloud storage, failing to do so actually leaves us incapable of doing anything meaningful with that memory.

Hitting home.  I seek out technology for nearly everything–especially tasks related to storing and recalling data.  I love that ICQ logs my full chat histories.  I love that Evernote records the lectures I attend.  And I love that Gmail keeps every email–forever.  This gives me a sense of freedom–of insurance.  I can carry on thinking about “things that matter” while leaving the storage and recall of facts to my devices.  And we might image a world in which a full-time Siri listens and acts for us: in a meeting I mention making an email introduction to someone and Siri does it… or I attend a talk on transcendentalism and Siri adds the wiki article to my evernote.  This technology assures me that any fact, detail, or even memory is at the tip of my fingertips.   But my realization is that I am doing myself a huge disservice by not doing the hard work of committing things to memory.  The concern isn’t: is evernote backed up (e.g. might I lose it)?  The concern is: by digitally “storing it” have I actually “lost it”?  Or perhaps if I digitally store it, I have never actually “had it”?

Getting help.  Carr uncovers a gem from the sixteenth century that got me thinking.  The Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus taught his students to look for “occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, brilliant flashes of style, adages, examples, and pithy remarks worth memorizing” and to collect them in a notebook organized by subject.  This process of transcription and memorizing was not a means of storage but rather “the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading.”  The Roman Seneca said it beautifully:

We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better.  Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.

This counsel manifested in the 17th century tradition of “commonplaces,” a scrapbook of sorts with clippings and transcribed passages, quotations, and memories.  As one linguistics professor said, “a gentleman’s commonplace book” served “both as a vehicle for and chronicle of his own intellectual development.”  This was not just our ancestors’ CTRL+C.  Rather the act of copying and organizing the content created the mental schema that enabled understanding. On this William James went so far as to say: “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.”  We might ask: if we are not remembering, are we not thinking?

Evernote is not a commonplace.  I was tempted to laugh at our ancestors; after all today I can capture terabytes of data about my daily experience – an HD video camera can record 1080p and 4 channel sound, recognize every face I encounter, transcribe every word I hear, and soon enough perform tasks and research passively, without my even thinking about it.  And that’s the point: today’s evernote and tomorrow’s 24/7 life capturing devices rob us of the act of remembering and, per James, the act of thinking.

The commonplace required manual transcription–a deliberate and time-intensive act that had two critical side effects.  First, handwriting requires mental recitation of an idea and creates time to process the idea.  Today I can “add to my evernote” and entire novel in one second.   Second, the commonplace was a book with a limited number of pages, which forced prioritization of ideas–only the ones that mattered made the cut.  Yet today I have no hesitation to record the audio of every lecture I attend and to save all 3,000 photos from my family vacation.

I am on a hunt for a modern commonplace–yes a book of sorts, but also a physical place and even an attitude.  Amidst the tumultuous sea of tweets, RSS feeds, and email, I am searching for a way to discover, understand, and remember basic truths.  The more places I visit, people I meet, and degrees I obtain, the more I appreciate the beauty and simplicity of a single idea, presented cogently.  And it is these basic ideas that I am trying to bring together so that they might mingle and become a “single sweet substance.”

So, what is your commonplace?  Have you committed things to memory?  How did it go? Any suggestions for me?

Note: nearly all of the quotations above are from The Shallows and are not correctly attributed. I am not intending to reflect those quotations as my own research.  In fact, it is clear to me now that I may not even have the capacity to do this kind of research!