Can Transactive Memory Be Harmful?

Larry Sanger is an interesting fellow. He holds a Ph.D in philosophy and is a co-founder of Wikipedia,, an on-line encyclopedia written by users. Yet he is concerned that the internet is harming education1. If so much information is available, and you know how to find it (an important proviso), why do you need to learn it when you can just look it up? Why do we need schools? Could not all children be home schooled if they had a computer and an internet connection? Would that not be so much cheaper? College is expensive. Who needs it?

Remember the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none? That reflects part of the concern. Now the knowledge landscape is so vast there is no chance that anyone can be familiar with all of it. Indeed, it is growing so fast that it would be impossible for an individual just to keep up with new information. But one can spend most of his or her time, social networking, playing online games, participating in chat boards, following incoming news events, etc.. If one were so disposed, one could spend the entire day on the internet and become familiar with a vast amount of information. I write information rather than knowledge, as knowledge implies some depth of understanding. This is Sanger’s concern, that people will become information savvy, yet lack knowledge. It is important to achieve some depth of knowledge in some areas. Some topics warrant careful study and the exploration of different media.

There is a trade-off that needs to be made between breadth and depth of knowledge. Too much concentration in one area will result in lack of knowledge in other areas. No concentration in any area and you can be accused of being a dilettante. People differ in their interests and how they spend their time. You want to do what is enjoyable and interesting, keeping in mind the dangers of being extreme in one direction or the other.

So the problem is not with transactive memory. Indeed, transactive memory encompasses both people and technology. Technology is not bad, but the manner in which it is used can be destructive. It is interesting to know that Socrates was appalled when the Greek alphabet (an early form of technology) was developed. He feared that the richness of the spoken language and the interaction with others would be lost. Clearly, his fears were misplaced.

1Casey, M.A. (2009). Ohio State Alumni Magazine. Nov-Dec, p.37

© 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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