Neo-Symbiosis and Transactive Memory

Prior to the development of the personal computer, the psychologist J. C. R. Licklider introduced the vision of Man-Computer Symbiosis. He said “That men and computers so supplement each other…and that jointly they possess the capabilities to think and comprehend, to decide upon effective action…in a way totally beyond present realization…are the primary means on which we base our hope.”1 In Man Computer Symbiosis2, Licklider chose the fig tree and the insect Blastophaga grossorun as his example of symbiosis. The larva of the insect lives inside the ovary of the fig tree where it gets its food. The tree cannot reproduce without the insect; the insect cannot eat without the tree. Together they constitute not only a viable, but also a productive and thriving partnership. The cooperative living together in intimate association, or even close union, of two dissimilar organisms is called symbiosis.

When I was a graduate student I was deeply impressed by Licklider’s vision. Unfortunately, I believe that this vision has been lost. All too often the goal is to replace humans with technology rather than to view technology as a tool for leveraging human potential. I tried to resurrect Licklider’s vision and to make it more politically correct in my paper “Beyond Usability: The New Symbiosis.3 So I termed it human-computer symbiosis. I also placed the human in the superordinate position in the relationship.

This blog has three themes. One is on human memory itself. Although human memory is quite remarkable, it is fallible and error prone. With perhaps the exception of some idiot savants, this is true of all humans. Moreover, as we age, there can be a deterioration of memory and in pathological cases this deterioration can be quite severe. The second theme focuses on memory techniques that not only offer improvements, but also provide mental exercise that can foster brain health. The third theme, transactive memory, concerns with the potential of technology not only for ameliorating memory decline, but also for providing for memory growth.

So think of computer technology as a means of leveraging your human potential. Think of it as a tool with the potential of not just maintaining and supplementing your memory, but of also enhancing and growing your memory. Think of the computer as a partner. You cannot remember everything, but if you know where to access information, you are leveraging your memory. If you cannot access information, but knows that it exists, then you can search for it. The information available on the internet is enormous, much more than one could learn in multiple lifetimes. It is like being at an all-you-can-eat gourmet banquet. Although there is much too much to sample, you can still avail yourself of a reasonable amount you can accommodate.

1Brate, A. (2002).  Technomanifestos:  visions from the information revolutionaries.  New York:  Thomson Texere.


3Griffith, D. (2005). Ergonomics in Design, 13, 30-31.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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