Last summer Nicholas Carr published The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a book length extension of his 2008 Atlantic essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The book received a good bit of attention and was in the ensuing weeks reviewed seemingly everywhere. We noted a few of those reviews here and here. Coming in fashionably late to the show, Jim Holt has written a lenghty review in the London Review of Books titled, “Smarter, Happier, More Productive.” Perhaps a little bit of distance is helpful.
Holt’s review ends up being one of the better summaries of Carr’s book that I have read, if only because Holt details more of the argument than most reviews. In the end, he tends to think that Carr is stretching the evidence and overstating his case on two fronts, intelligence and happiness. However, he is less sanguine on one last point, creativity, and that in relation to memory.
Holt cites two well known writers who are optimistic about off-loading their memories to the Internet:
This raises a prospect that has exhilarated many of the digerati. Perhaps the internet can serve not merely as a supplement to memory, but as a replacement for it. ‘I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything,’ says Clive Thompson, a writer for Wired, ‘because I can instantly retrieve the information online.’ David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, writes: ‘I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realised the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants – silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.’
But as Holt notes, “The idea that machine might supplant Mnemosyne is abhorrent to Carr, and he devotes the most interesting portions of his book to combatting it.” Why not outsource our memory?
Carr responds with a bit of rhetorical bluster. ‘The web’s connections are not our connections,’ he writes. ‘When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.’ Then he quotes William James, who in 1892 in a lecture on memory declared: ‘The connecting is the thinking.’ And James was onto something: the role of memory in thinking, and in creativity.
Holt goes on to supplement Carr’s discussion with an anecdote about the polymathic French mathematician, Henri Poincare. What makes Poincare’s case instructive is that “his breakthroughs tended to come in moments of sudden illumination.”
Poincaré had been struggling for some weeks with a deep issue in pure mathematics when he was obliged, in his capacity as mine inspector, to make a geological excursion. ‘The changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work,’ he recounted.
“Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’s sake, I verified the result at my leisure.”
How to account for the full-blown epiphany that struck Poincaré in the instant that his foot touched the step of the bus? His own conjecture was that it had arisen from unconscious activity in his memory.
This leads Holt to suggest, following Poincare, that bursts of creativity and insight arise from the unconscious work of memory, and that this is the difference between internalized and externalized memory. We may be able to retrieve at will whatever random piece of information we are looking for with a quick Google search, but that seems not to approach the power of the human mind to creatively and imaginatively work with its stores of memory. Holt concludes:
It is the connection between memory and creativity, perhaps, which should make us most wary of the web. ‘As our use of the web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory,’ Carr observes. But conscious manipulation of externally stored information is not enough to yield the deepest of creative breakthroughs: this is what the example of Poincaré suggests. Human memory, unlike machine memory, is dynamic. Through some process we only crudely understand – Poincaré himself saw it as the collision and locking together of ideas into stable combinations – novel patterns are unconsciously detected, novel analogies discovered. And this is the process that Google, by seducing us into using it as a memory prosthesis, threatens to subvert.
And this leads me to make one additional observation. As I’ve mentioned before, it is customary in these discussions to refer back to Plato’s Phaedrus in which Socrates warns that writing, as an externalization of memory, will actually lead to the diminishing of human memory. Holt mentions the passage in his review and Carr mentions it as well. When the dialog is trotted out it is usually as a “straw man” to prove that concerns about new technologies are silly and misguided. But it seems to me that there is a silent equivocation that slips into these discussions: the notion of memory we tend to assume is our current understanding of memory that is increasingly defined by the comparison to computer memory which is essentially storage.
It seems to me that having first identified a computer’s storage capacity as “memory,” a metaphor dependent upon the human capacity we call “memory,” we have now come to reverse the direction of the metaphor by understanding human “memory” in light of a computer’s storage capacity. In other words we’ve reduced our understanding of memory to mere storage of information. And now we read all discussions of memory in light of this reductive understanding.
Given this reductive view of memory, it seems silly for Socrates (and by extension, Plato) to worry about the externalization of memory, whether it is stored inside or outside, what difference does it make as long as we can access it? And, in fact, access becomes the problem that attends all externalized memories from the book to the Internet. But what if memory is not mere storage? Few seem to extend their analysis to account for the metaphysical role memory of the world of forms played within Plato’s account of the human person and true knowledge. We may not take Plato’s metaphysics at face value, but we can’t really understand his concerns about memory without understanding their lager intellectual context.
Holt helps us to see the impoverishment of our understanding of memory from another, less metaphysically freighted, perspective. The Poincare anecdote in its own way also challenges the reduction of memory to mere storage, linking it with the complex workings of creativity and insight. Others have similarly linked memory to identity, wisdom, and even, in St. Augustine’s account, our understanding of the divine. Whether one veers into the theological or not, the reduction of memory to mere storage of data should strike us as an inadequate account of memory and its significance and cause us to rethink our readiness to offload it.
Update: Post from Carr on the issue of memory including a relevant excerpt from The Shallows, “Killing Mnemosyne.”