Not Remembering Ourselves

In a piece about memory for National Geographic Magazine last month – “Remember This”– Joshua Foer profiles both a man who cannot form new memories as well as a woman who can’t stop remembering every single thing that happens to her. In the middle of the piece, Foer takes a detour to discuss technology:

We’ve gradually replaced our internal memory with what psychologists refer to as external memory, a vast superstructure of technological crutches that we’ve invented so that we don’t have to store information in our brains. We’ve gone, you might say, from remembering everything to remembering awfully little. We have photographs to record our experiences, calendars to keep track of our schedules, books (and now the Internet) to store our collective knowledge, and Post-it notes for our scribbles. What have the implications of this outsourcing of memory been for ourselves and for our society? Has something been lost?

I thought of this when I read about and then listened to a podcast discussion of the controversy around Greg Knauss’s iPhone app Romantimatic. Brief recap: Knauss wrote the app to help people remember to contact their “sweetheart” every so often by text or phone. Knauss included a few prefab text messages you could send to your sweetheart, most of which were clearly intended as humorous (e.g. “My phone just vibrated and I thought of you.”) Maybe it was the prefab messages, and maybe it was the current knee-jerk fear of how technology is taking over our lives, but a lot of people freaked out. (I highly recommend Knauss’s meta-analysis of the outrage.)

One of the most vehement critics was Evan Selinger, a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, who wrote a take down of Romantimatic for the Atlantic (“The Outsourced Lover”) and then a companion piece for Wired that linked Romantimatic to other apps that are “Turning Us into Sociopaths” :

While I am far from a Luddite who fetishizes a life without tech, we need to consider the consequences of this latest batch of apps and tools that remind us to contact significant others, boost our willpower, provide us with moral guidance, and encourage us to be civil. Taken together, we’re observing the emergence of tech that doesn’t just augment our intellect and lives — but is now beginning to automate and outsource our humanity." (emphasis in the original)

Note that word “outsource” again, the same word Foer used to describe how technology is taking over aspects of what we used to remember. The implications of “outsource” are not only pejorative, but carry strange class-based economic associations, as if by letting our phones take on certain tasks, we’re stealing jobs from the working masses and taking advantage of cheap labor overseas.

Of course, technology has always promised to make labor cheaper, or at least easier. From the invention of fire to the wheel, from washing machines to nail guns, the goal of technology has always been to lessen the load of physical labor, to “outsource” it, if you will. We don’t find outsourcing our physical labor to be problematic, though. What makes us uncomfortable is when technology encroaches on the labor of our brains rather than our bodies.

This despite the fact that technology has been supplementing our brains for at least as long as we’ve been making tools. Before the internet, before computers, before printing presses, books, or even writing of any kind, people stored information in their brains. But they did so using a primitive technology, i.e. most cultures stored their most important historical and spiritual information in the form of song and verse. Why? Because music and rhyme are easier to remember; they are the original brain augmentation technology.

Then, of course, we invented writing and everything went downhill. Socrates famously spoke out against the invention of writing, saying it 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.” And now here we are, having to be reminded by our phones to send a sweet message to our sweethearts. Just as Socrates predicted, we’ve lost our humanity!

Except not. Because what is humanity? Isn’t the fact that we create these tools part of what makes us human? I’m reminded of a passage from the amazing essay “Mind vs. Machine” by Brian Christian (which later became a book) about an annual Turing Test, in which humans and computers compete to figure out who seems the most human.

Christian delves into the history of computers and points out that the word “computer” actually used to refer to human beings, most of them women, who did the hard work of calculating any sufficiently complex bit of data that needed to be calculated. When the first computer-like devices were invented, they were described as “digital computers”: digital versions of the human workers. Alan Turing himself said, “These machines are intended to carry out any operations which could be done by a human computer.”

Christian writes about the irony of this reversal:

Now it is “digital computer” that is not only the default term, but the literal one. In the mid–20th century, a piece of cutting-edge mathematical gadgetry was said to be “like a computer.” In the 21st century, it is the human math whiz who is “like a computer.” It’s an odd twist: we’re like the thing that used to be like us. We imitate our old imitators, in one of the strange reversals in the long saga of human uniqueness.

This is why I find it odd that apps like Romantimatic are accused of outsourcing our humanity. I’ve been trying out Romantimatic myself in the past couple of weeks. I chose to delete all the prefab text messages (which may have been a design flaw, though I appreciate their sense of humor). Instead, I use the app as an unscheduled, random reminder to think about my wife and tell her what I’m thinking. This does not rob me of my humanity. If anything, it stops me in the middle of my day and reminds me to think about something of greater importance, not unlike a brief meditation or prayer.

Technology is not our savior, ready to deliver some utopian future, but it does not have to be our enemy. It’s been with us since the beginning, from poetry to reminder apps. Far from making us less human, it can even reawaken us to our humanity in the midst of our mechanized, busy lives. We just have to learn how to use it.