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The Cost of Google as Memory Prosthesis

A number of really excellent posts by L. M. Sacasas on memory, thinking, and learning

April 30, 2018Filed under blogMarkdown source

This is less a blog post in the normal sense and more a bunch of links to old posts by L. M. Sacasas. (If you’re not subscribed to his blog, The Frailest Thing, you should be. Here’s the RSS feed; you can just copy and paste that link into your feed reader. You do use RSS, right?)

I’ve had a bunch of thoughts about thinking and memory on my mind over the last decade, and have never really spent a lot of time writing them down. Jaimie has gotten to hear most of them, for good or ill. But Sacasas covers a lot of the most important pieces of it in this post and others linked below.

The problem is that we tend to conceive of thinking analogously to how we imagine a computer works and we abstract processes from data. We treat “critical thinking” as a process that can be taught independently of any specific data or information. On the contrary, according to Willingham, the findings of cognitive science suggest that “[c]ritical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge” and “we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.”

One of the chief ways I feel the bitter sting of “the shallows” is in precisely this: that I have too often let Google do the work my memory should. But memory and connection and those startling leaps of insight that come from them are not substitutable by a search engine. Thinking happens as much in the background of the rest of our lives as it does on demand; and good answers to questions come as we put questions to ourselves, rather than to a database, even one powered by sophisticated sets of derivatives (a.k.a. “machine learning”).

Databases are potentially very useful tools. But their utility is specific, and we should circumscribe our uses of them, and especially our reliance on them, accordingly.

So… read Sacasas on memory!

And if it doesn’t go without saying… follow the links in those; there’s a lot of good material there.