2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

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Professor of Journalism, New York University; former journalist, Science Magazine; Author, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception
I HAVE OUTSOURCED MY MEMORY

The process was so gradual, so natural, that I didn't notice it at first. In retrospect, it was happening to me long before the advent of the Internet. The earliest symptoms still mar the books in my library. Every dog-eared page represents a hole in my my memory. Instead of trying to memorize a passage in the book or remember an important statistic, I took an easier path, storing the location of the desirable memory instead of the memory itself. Every dog-ear is a meta-memory, a pointer to an idea that I wanted to retain but was too lazy to memorize.

The Internet turned an occasional habit into my primary way of storing knowledge. As the Web grew, my browsers began to bloat with bookmarked Websites, with sites that stored information that I deemed important but didn't feel obliged to commit to memory. And as search engines matured, I stopped bothering even with bookmarks; I soon relied upon Altavista, Hotbot, and then Google to help me find — and recall — ideas. My meta-memories, my pointers to ideas, started being replaced by meta-meta-memories, by pointers to pointers to data. Each day, my brain fills with these quasi-memories, with pointers and with pointers to pointers, each one a dusty IOU sitting where a fact or idea should reside.

Now, when I expend the effort to squirrel memories away, I store them in the clutter of my hard drive as much as I do in the labyrinth of my brain. As a result, I spend as much time organizing them, making sure I can retrieve them on demand, as I do collecting them. My memories are filed in folders within folders within folders, easily accessible — and searchable, in case my meta-memory of their location fails. And when a file becomes corrupt, all I am left with a pointer, a void where an idea should be, a ghost of a departed thought.