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I’m losing my mind but I know exactly where to find it: on the Internet

By in Technology
A visualization of all the paths data can travel on through a portion of the Internet.

My memory is failing me. It happens on a near-daily basis: a name, a face, an address. I just can’t seem to recall anything anymore, and I blame the Internet.

For the most part, this makes sense. Why memorize the exact date of the Titanic disaster if you can just look it up on Wikipedia with the stroke of a few keys? Why remember birthdays when Facebook alerts you with a convenient suggestion? “Lenore Swystun’s birthday is today.” (Why am I friends with Lenore Swystun, again?)

Perhaps my memory isn’t failing so much as it is adapting. Rather than remembering specific facts, I find myself remembering the paths I took to discover them. Part of me tries to remember that perfect word used in a movie review that gave me a brief nerd-boner, but what I actually squirrel away into my hippocampus is the pathway that led me there. I remember the search terms, the headline or the blog that linked me there before I actually remember what I want to take away from the article in the first place.

Cogitation: The action of thinking deeply about something; contemplation.

I doubt I’m alone in this. How many times has someone tried to tell you about something interesting they saw online by saying, “Oh, so-and-so linked to it on her Facebook”? Our brains are cluttered with ever more stuff, and remembering how to find facts and figures seems like a useful skill, perhaps one we will all come to use more frequently than just rote memorization.

Of course, there are downsides. As I type this, there is someone in this coffee shop I am certain I have met before, but I cannot for the life of me remember her name. I know exactly which friend of a friend’s Facebook profile I need to get to in order to see a photo in which she is tagged, but it doesn’t help me as I try to bury my face behind my laptop so I don’t have to awkwardly call her “pal” or “champ.”

I’ve also become rather awful at writing exams. Give me a week to write an essay and I’ll do just fine, but to just dredge up all the information I need in a one-hour window seems cruel to me now. If you gave me a laptop and Wi-Fi, I would ace every exam.

Perhaps this is just a natural shift in how our memories work. Socrates feared the written word because he felt it would destroy the wisdom of the spoken word. Letters would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Writing was “an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence.”

In some ways, Socrates was right. Writing meant people no longer had to remember hours-long tales to be told around the fire because, well, you could just read the damned thing. And the only reason we know what Socrates said at all is because Plato wrote that shit down somewhere. Writing freed up more of our brains for other tasks, and I suspect the hyperlinks that have invaded our brains are part of a similar shift in how we retain and reproduce knowledge.

But just as writing once reduced the need for conversation and interaction, the Internet’s permanent memory often reduces our own brains to search engines that remember keywords but are almost helpless in the face of ever more information. Until we all find a way to cope with this change, I’m going to be calling a lot of people “champ.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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