Friday, November 04, 2005

Intelligent Memory in the Internet Age

C|Net published a interesting article on "Intelligence in age of Internet" back in mid September and I forgot to mention it here. The article begins with the question: "It's a question older than the Parthenon: Do innovations and new technologies make us more intelligent?" and the piece discusses this issue from a historical and cross-cultural perspective. A few quotes:
Intelligence, as it impacts the economist Valderrama, is our capacity to adapt and thrive in our own environment. In a Darwinian sense, it's as true now as it was millions of years ago, when man's aptitude for hearing the way branches broke or smelling a spore affected his power to avoid predators, eat and survive.

But what makes someone smart can vary in different cultures and situations. A successful Wall Street banker who has dropped into the Australian Outback likely couldn't pull off a great Crocodile Dundee impression. A mathematical genius like Isaac Newton could be--in fact, he was--socially inept and a borderline hermit. A master painter? Probably not so good at balancing a checkbook.

Despite what I like about this piece, it has a very limited understanding of memory. For instance:
Only 600 years ago, people relied on memory as a primary means of communication and tradition. Before the printed word, memory was essential to lawyers, doctors, priests and poets, and those with particular talents for memory were revered. Seneca, a famous teacher of rhetoric around A.D. 37, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard years before. "Memory," said Greek playwright Aeschylus, "is the mother of all wisdom."

People feared the invention of the printing press because it would cause people to rely on books for their memory. Today, memory is more irrelevant than ever, argue some academics.

"What's important is your ability to use what you know well. There are people who are walking encyclopedias, but they make a mess of their lives. Getting a 100 percent on a written driving test doesn't mean you can drive," said Robert Sternberg, dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and a professor of psychology.

As I argue when ever I get the chance, the art of memory has always been about information management, the "ability to use what you know well" whether what you know is stored in your brain, in your Palm Pilot, in the library, or on the Web. Moreover, not only does this article make the common mistake in only understanding memory from an internal-external storage perspective rather than the more important natural-artificial perspective, it only understands memory as a function of cognition. When we know how to drive we rely upon habit-memory, also known as procedural memory. While I read Robert Sternberg's quote as making a distinction between declarative memory and habit-memory/procedural memory.

11/5 update/edit: The title of this post should have read "Intelligence in the Internet Age" after the name of the article, but, obviously, my subconscious had other plans. I can't help but note that I changed "intelligence" to "intelligent memory," especially within the context of my critique above. Intelligent memory, you see, governs the way we think, and is made up of "pieces of information, connections between the pieces, and the mental processes that manage the pieces and connections" (Gordon and Berger, Intelligent Memory, 7). I haven't thought about or worked enough with intelligent memory yet to say anything profound, but while "ordinary" memory tends to diminish with age, intelligent memory can be actively improved with old age and, in fact, does improve through experience.

To use an example from Intelligent Memory, Gordon and Berger explain that when we remember where we've put our car keys, we're drawing upon "ordinary memory." Everything else we know about our keys, what they're for, what they resemble, and the ways we might use them other than starting a car, such as for prying off a lid or cutting through thin plastic, are all governed by intelligent memory. Likewise, they explain, when you translate the marks on this screen (or their book) into letters, then words, and finally into a coherent message, you're using your intelligent memory.

So, how is intelligent memory important in the Internet Age? It governs both critical and creative thinking. It's what allows us to draw from our book knowledge of driving and our habit-memory of driving and make use of both in new ways when we encounter unfamiliar situations while driving. Likewise, when we intuit a new application or figure out how to navigate a new interface or when we modify, hack, or repurpose, we're making use of our intelligent memory. It's late, I've had far too little sleep for far too long, and I've got some unarticulated idea hiding in the recesses of my mind, dancing behind a veil. Essentially, if the Internet Age is to be one of critical and creative thinking, of innovation, then it is intelligent memory from which we'll need to draw.

Via Datacloud via Boing Boing
Cross-posted to Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archive

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At 3:52 PM, Blogger lisa schamess said...

Well said. There is a connection here I can't quite tease out vis a vis the memory-learning nexus, and the ways in which we view learning aids as crutches or (horrors!) shortcuts for students. We are SO enamored of preventing students from taking various shortcuts, lest they cheat or show scholarly laziness, that we also cut them off from any ingenuity or creative use of their own memories + outside resources. I am not saying this well. Luckily, Nick at TechNotes: Teaching Writing in an Online World (
says It a bit better.

BTW, stupid question revealing my technodolt roots: how'dyou create a neat hyperlink in a comment to a post like this? You did it at my house...

At 6:07 PM, Blogger John said...

Yeah, I can rant forever on artificial memory systems and our attitudes towards them. I'll just share one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite people, Sharon Cogdill : "In an oral culture, you own it if you have it memorized, in a print culture, you own it if you have the book, and in digital culture, you own it if you can find it again."

I assume you're asking how to code a hyperlink, yes? To hand code a link in HTML, you type <a href="url">content</a>

So, to create the link to Sharon's page, I wrote <a href="">Sharon Cogdill</a>

My two examples aren't hyperlinks because I used special codes to display the < and > rather than actually use them, which would have made my examples links rather than show you how to make links.

Basic HTML is really easy to learn. One-on-one, I can teach someone the basics in 10 minutes or so, and I can walk an entire 20 person class through the process of making a basic Web page with links and graphics in less than 30 minutes.

Some useful sites:

*Krause's How to Work with HTML
*Webmonkey's html_basics
*NWE's Help: Web: Authoring: HTML
*Webmonkey HTML Cheatsheet


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