Achieving the Max in Technical Transactive Memory

As you probably know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, transactive memory refers to external memory storage. There are two varieties of transactive memory: human, where the information is held by other humans, and technical, where the information is held in some type of technology, be it paper, book, journal, computer file, or on the internet. In Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything1, Joshau Foer relates the story of Gordon Bell, who regards himself as the vanguard of a movement that takes the externalization of memory to its logical extreme. Bell is a seventy-three year old computer scientist who now works at Microsoft. He has advanced his ideas in his book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything2. Bell has gone well beyond writing a book and has started to code and store all information that he can find and that bears upon his life. For the last decade, Bell has kept a digital “surrogate memory”, a lifelog, to supplement the one in his brain. He is keeping a record of anything and everything that might be forgotten. He uses a SenseCam, a digital camera, that dangles around his neck and records every sight and sound that passes before his eyes. He uses a digital recorder to record every sound he hears. Every phone call received by his landline is recorded and every piece of paper he reads is immediately scanned into his computer. A pack rat with boxes of stuff, he has digitized all of his photo, engineering notebooks, and papers. Today his lifelog takes up 170 gigabytes of memory and is growing at a rate of about a gigabyte a month. This includes over 100,000 emails, 65,000 photographs, 100,000 documents, and 2,000 phone calls.

Now as readers of the Healthymemory Blog know, storing information is half the battle. The other half is being able to retrieve, access, the information when it is wanted. This is the basic distinction between available and accessible memory. Just as information can be available, but not accessible in biological memory, information can be available, but inaccessible, from transactive memory. Bell has a search engine to accomplish this retrieval. However, to use this he needs to us his biological memory and senses to re-input it into his brain through his eyes and ears. His vision of the future is that there will be electronic chips implanted in the brain to accomplish this automatically.

A couple of issues need to be considered here. First of all is what is the utility of storing everything? Is this truly adaptive or is the efficiency of information retrieval being damaged by much extraneous and irrelevant bits of what might technically be regarded as information, but have little bearing upon knowledge.

An implicit assumption underlying Bell’s thesis is that information does not need to be attended to, it merely needs to be stored to be useful. I question this assumption. All that I know about memory is that information needs to undergo conscious processing for it to be useful. That is, it requires attention. Although it is true that out unconscious minds are constantly at work, and that information and solutions sometimes simply pop into consciousness, I would argue that at some time this information received conscious attention.

So the future that Bell sees, might not work as he thinks, and could even be counterproductive.

1Foer, J. (2011). New York: The Penguin Press.

2Bell, C.G., & Gemmel, J. (2009). New York: Dutton 

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. 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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One Response to “Achieving the Max in Technical Transactive Memory”

  1. Hugh Folk Says:

    there are. I believe, some memories that do not need continuous reprocessing to be useful. Memories of childhood, early loves, family life, for instance, may be more trustworthy like old LP’s for not being repeatedly replayed. I find that I tend unconsciously, to edit memories from 70 or 75 years ago to satisfy my superego’s ideal of a dutiful, loving, innocent child. The idea of psychoanalysis is that certain unacceptable memories are repressed, and analysis may loosen the bonds of repression. Brooding over past mistakes may simply wall them up more impenetrably, or transform memories of them into heroic episodes, contrary to the memories of punishment which are also repressed. Maybe the resilient personality who ignores the hard knocks that life has dealt him (or, that more likely, he has dealt himself) thrives without having anything to confess or any divine forgiveness to beg. Then, of course, there are the wicked persons (perhaps more common in fiction than in life) who spend their last hours screaming in agony while the spirits that they tormented in life take their turns at bat.).

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