OpenKnowledge: From Fleshy to Silicon Servers

I just read an interesting article over at TechCrunch by Devin Coldewey where he asks whether it’s good for us to depend on these external memory systems (i.e. Google, Facebook, Maps, etc.). He thinks it’s bad because we are forgetting or are becoming unable to internalize information and thereby losing insights. While I read it, I was convinced, but after internalizing it, I’m not quite too sure.

We’ve Done This Already!

The first thing that he has a problem with is externalizing our knowledge. That is, placing our knowledge outside out minds. For example, when your friend asks you “Do you remember so-and-so from such-and-such movie?” you immediately go to your phone. For one reason or other Coldewey thinks this is somehow weird or strange. However, we have been doing this for thousands of years! I don’t remember times before the internet too much but I do remember that I would ask my parents for certain bits of information. Someone may have asked me “Hey kid, what’s your address? or “Hey kid, what’s your insurance company?” I kept that information with my parents. That information was a phone call away. What’s different is the method of communication and the storage size.

In a related note I wanted to mention one of the comments I read in the comment thread that also seems to miss some of the nuances of the internet. Canon197 writes:

“Tonight my mom told me one of these days she wants one of us kids to tell her how to change her profile picture and make a new album on facebook. I told her, well yeah we can make that happen but you could always just google it and actually read the information. She calmly smiled and said I’d rather learn it from somebody. How often does anyone do that these days? It made me feel hope for the world when she said that.”

Again, I am not sure why there is relief in this comment. Canon197 talks about Google as if it creates information. What Google does is aggregate and organize information that humans have created. Understood this way, his mother would have learned how to change her profile picture from somebody! Someone wrote the instructions and has merely loaded them into some server for others to see. Maybe it’s the personal touch that his mother wanted. In my experience, people who are computer illiterate have a hard time following written directions. They take verbal or verbal-and-point commands much better.

Now I Remember Why I Forgot That

Googling is just an intense form of social externalization. I don’t have to store anything in my tiny little brain. And why do so? One of the examples I used above (and was used in the article) is that of asking your friend about some dude in some movie. Why should we need to remember that? Will remembering this sort of information really be important? I think someone could make an argument that we shouldn’t put that sort of garbage-information online. I happen to think it’s nice to have online.

But that is one example I think most people would agree is pretty weak to support the fear of externalizing knowledge. Coldewey does have a much stronger example and I have fallen victim to in the past.

My dad, who has driven to visit my brother in Vancouver, B.C., a dozen times, still uses the GPS despite my brother living in the same neighborhood for several years now. When I went up with him a month ago, the GPS route was slightly different, and my dad nearly had a panic attack.


I’ve had this happen to me. I was convinced that the thing was wrong. It probably was, but I don’t know. At the last minute I chose to follow my gut and follow the path I usually take. I’m sure that not everyone follows their gut. It might be nice to have a company do some study on that! Going back to the quote, I find it interesting that his father “had a slight panic attack”. Why would someone have a panic attack if they didn’t know what the correct route was? His father probably just feels safe have the GPS on. It’s a great companion, it gives fairly reliable information, etc.. The point is, you can’t be afraid of something being wrong if you don’t know that it’s wrong. His father had already internalized the information but has decided to have an external source of knowledge for safety purposes.

I SAID WE ALREADY DO THAT!

After the hard push to convince us that this externalization is messing the whole world up he gives us another example to let us find out how messed up it already is!

Try this experiment: if you have a blog, a Posterous or Tumblr or what have you, try to remember as many items you’ve posted as you can, right now, without checking. Write them down or something. I have a “blowoff valve” blog myself, and I’ve posted hundreds of quotes, images, and such to it — but I have trouble picturing more than a few dozen.

I tried doing it and failed. I thought I had done something and found that I hadn’t. But then I realized that this happens with a lot of stuff that I do offline too. I can’t really remember what the last conversation with my roommate was about. Does this mean that I didn’t internalize it? Maybe, but I’m sure it was unimportant. Does he remember? Probably not, but if he does, maybe he thought it was important. Who we are is, in some way shape or form, connected to what we find important and unimportant. Coldewey makes it seem like we may lose our personality due to this push for externalization. I don’t think so. I can remember my first date but I can’t really remember what type of ice cream I had last. I’m sure someone out there might have those two switched up.

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