Sunday, July 09, 2006

The externalization of human memory

treo 600I've been using a Treo 600 for almost three years now, and I've noticed with interest how it has come to serve as an extension of my memory. Like most folks who have started using cell phones during this decade, I no longer remember telephone numbers--my phone does this for me. I also no longer maintain mental lists of movies to see or music to listen to. Nor do I need to keep paper shopping lists, or paper lists of any sort. It's become a habit now: when I'm talking with someone and I want to remember an interesting bit of our conversation, I simply note it in my phone.

I've found that my phone is an especially handy tool for audio reading. Since I installed a one-gigabyte SD card in it last year, I've been using my phone to "read" voluminous amounts of material, via audiobooks and podcasts. The advantages of audio reading over visual reading are clear. Not only can I multitask (washing dishes, etc.) while audio reading, I can also have one long extended reading experience. For example, I'm currently listening to Collapse, by Jared Diamond. Before I leave my door in the morning, I've already started audio reading, and this continues uninterrupted through my 18-minute walk to my bus stop, during the commute, and then during my walk from the bus to my office. There's no putting the book down, or glancing up to see if the bus has arrived.

But there's a downside to audio reading--it's more difficult to retain information than with traditional visual reading. Especially during my walking-commute, a plethora of distractions force my attention away from the book. Sometimes I realize that I don't recall what I've listened to over the past five minutes. Although it's possible to go back over what I've missed, it's not as convenient as visually re-scanning, and I generally don't bother.

This problem would disappear with audio-to-text capture functionality. For instance, if I realized that I hadn't really paid attention to the past five minutes of content, I could click a button on my phone and that particular chunk of audio would be transferred to a text file that I could refer to later. This would also be handy for scenarios where I want to check on the definition of a word, or the geographical location of an island. Such functionality would enable audio readers to retain much more information.

I'd love to see this sort of innovation occur in the near future--in the next five years. It would be a big step forward from current memory-augmentation capabilities of smartphones. Where would things go from there, though, say, in 15-20 years?

No one has any idea, but I can certainly dream: I want to see a smartphone (or whatever its all-in-one handheld successor will be) that functions as a true externalization of my memory. I can imagine a device that continually records everything that I hear and see, compiling and indexing it like Google Desktop currently does for information on hard drives. All recorded information could be quickly accessed through spoken commands.

Could this sort of virtual augmentation of memory eventually occur? And if it does, will it cause our traditional memory functions to atrophy away? Or would our minds, freed from their former tasks of committing quotidian details to memory, move on to more substantial problem-solving pursuits?


1 comment:

Megan said...

I read somewhere--not sure where, maybe Gore Vidal's near-endless novel of ancient times, Creation?--that many people were against writing when it was relatively new, for the same reason: its deleterious effects on individual human memory. I don't know if this is historically documented (written) or just a guess, but it makes sense. I wonder if we'll eventually go full circle and invent a data storage technology that communicates directly with the human brain and thus reinternalizes memory. It might be a fun one to document.