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Guest column: Memory in the Age of the Internet – The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same?

By on July 21, 20114 Comments

Almost everyone can identify with the following situation: Your cell phone runs out of battery power, and you need to make a call.  A friend graciously offers to let you use his phone, but as you attempt to make the call you realize that you have no idea what the actual number is of the person you are trying to reach.  Now flash back 15 years and try again.  Odds are you would have had much better luck, because you would have had to memorize that number, instead of relying on the contact list in your phone.

The reason behind this aspect of how our memory works (or doesn’t work) is the subject of a recent study by Betsy Sparrow at Columbia University.  In the experiment, test subjects entered bits of trivia into a computer; half were told that the information would be saved in the computer and half were told it would not.  Subjects who believed the information would not be saved were significantly more likely to retain the information.

A second experiment was designed to test how computer accessibility impacts what is remembered.  The subjects were asked a question, and asked to remember both the statement, as well as which of five file folders it was saved in.  Subjects had better success in recalling the folder than the question, showing what is called transactive memory, which describes how we rely on others, be they friends and family, or physical reference material such as books and electronic tools such as the Internet, to store information for us.  The concept of transactive memory is not new, but historically referred to a person to whom we would turn for information on the topic that they specialized in.

While the temptation is to begin handwringing and loudly proclaim that we are devolving into memory-less, Internet addicted zombies, doing so would be not only premature but also misguided.  Sparrow, in an interview on PBS’s News Hour, made it very clear that we are offloading memory for things that we are not expert at, that is, areas where we are not the primary transactive memory holder for others.  She also makes the point that what we are doing now is not very different from what we have always done (ask others for information), but that because we are asking a computer, the experience feels different and more salient.

For knowledge workers, the significance of the Sparrow’s research may be an understanding of the importance of transactive memory sources.  Her works shows that humans will naturally offload information when they can; adapting to a changing environment and conserving their mental bandwidth for information they can not offload.  This is not due to laziness or because technology is making us stupid, both common arguments raised in debates around these issues, but instead a sign of how our brains adapt to our surroundings.

To be effective in a work environment that is rife with Information Overload-related problems, ranging from e-mail overload to interruptions and distractions, knowledge workers need to know where to look for information.  Quickly finding the contact information for a human expert or the correct database for a critical document are both examples of effective use of transactive memory sources, yet both tasks are often problematic and can cause delays and significant costs in lost productivity.

Improvements in search technology, expertise location, and even unified communications technologies that allow for knowledge workers to initiate conversations with colleagues with minimal friction can facilitate what is a natural (and uniquely) human tendency to learn where information resides and leverage that knowledge to be more effective.

Instead of being reactionary and pessimistic when faced with the data from this study, it falls on organizations to recognize the amazing adaptive ability that humans posses to use external memory sources, and to give their knowledge workers the tools they need to find the information they are looking for.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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