I’ll Take ‘The Obsolescence of Trivia’ for $500, Please

I once heard that Albert Einstein didn’t know his own phone number, because he never bothered to memorize anything that could be written down or looked up in less than two minutes. Even for someone like me, who always prided herself on being able to remember things, from trivia to birthdays to obscure historical facts (before my memory became a sieve, that is), such a thoughtful approach to using one’s brain seemed incredibly intelligent. Theoretically, all the space that was freed by not having to remember pedestrian things like one’s telephone number could be put to use coming up with, say, the Theory of Relativity and blueprints for the atomic bomb. What an efficient use of that magic 10% of our brain power.

I wonder what Einstein would have done with the Internet.

The ability to find almost any fact with a few clicks has to be one of the defining characteristics of our age. Case in point: I just verified the above story by searching for it online. It took about 4 seconds. I didn’t have to recall which book I’d read it in and then go searching for an hour through my Library of Congress-ordered bookshelves hoping the tome in question had an index so I could easily locate the passage I needed. I also didn’t have to think about who might have mentioned it to me and then look for his or her phone number and (horror!) call to ask about it.

The ability to search in this way is literally changing how our brains work. We have become “shallower” thinkers, who absorb less because we can find information so quickly and have our comprehension constantly interrupted with new information being presented to us (for example, by blue underlined links in a body of text). Things like Wikipedia have made us more able to find information easily, but are we less able to process it?

"Watson" tries to beat Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

"Watson" tries to beat Jeopardy! champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, but can't respond to context

It could be that knowledge easily acquired has less likelihood of being retained. (Of course, it may be that I notice this because though I get older and learn much more rapidly, I also forget more rapidly than I did when I was young.) Instead of coming up with ways to store knowledge in our long-term memory, we are becoming adept at determining how to find it in the external world. Instead of savouring text or indulging in slow reading, as I wrote about in my last post, we skim, knowing we can go back later if we need to find something. Knowledge is largely transactional, facts over tone or style. A tradition similar to that of Islam, that followers should be able to memorize and recite the Qur’an, would be unlikely to take off if established today, it seems. Most of us can barely get through an article.

University administrators are talking about fundamentally changing the way information is taught in schools. What is the point of spending a few hours a week standing in a lecture format imparting facts, when facts can be discovered within seconds? Even if professors are teaching a way of analyzing facts, this too can be discovered in the form of lesson plans, course outlines, and sample teaching schedules for those so inclined to look for them. The kind of knowledge that students need today (one could argue, perhaps, that they have always needed) is of a much higher order and involves critical thinking as opposed to simple rote learning and memorization. Certainly, this appears to be one of the few arenas left in which computers can’t best us: an article on ars technica today reports that “Watson,” a computer created by IBM to compete against repeat Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter mostly knows the facts (by querying its own database) but not how to take other contestants’ wrong answers into account when preparing ‘his’ own.

It is certainly possible that our future will involve less fact recall. To an extent, however, it will always be necessary as a building block to learning (think: simple math, the alphabet), so we won’t lose it entirely. The real question is whether the change is good or bad, if the kind of thinking we’re doing instead is beneficial or detrimental.

It’s hard to put a value judgment on the change. One could make the case that, from an evolutionary perspective, being able to recall facts, such as where the highest-yield coconut trees were located or what time of year animals would be in a certain location, would be beneficial. This later transitioned into an affinity among many for trivia games and quizzes of all kinds.

But is this kind of knowledge as useful today, when it can so easily be obtained online? Are we missing the problem-solving and interpersonal skills associated with acquiring it? An article on Slate.com last week lamented the rise of the Internet because it made finding obscure treasures like minor league baseball hats too easy to find, without the letter writing, sleuthing and travel required to find such things in (in this case) the 1980s. Now we are limited only by what we can imagine – if we can think of it, it’s probably out there. So is the free space in our brain dedicated to imagining more of what is possible, and less of how we’ll find out about it? Or are we just getting lazy?

Time will likely tell. But will it be a human characteristic change, or merely a culture-specific one? Another thing to consider is that access to the Internet and its potentially game-changing brain alterations is anything but ubiquitous. Being able to find anything online depends on both access to technology and freedom of information. Granted, the study linked to above mentions that it takes only about 5 days to gain the brain activity of an old hand Internet searcher. But no doubt some of the more profound changes to our neural pathways will evolve more slowly, with repeated exposure. Will the unconnected, firewalled world catch up in time?

Perhaps we’ll be too busy watching computers best each other on Jeopardy! to notice.

One Response to I’ll Take ‘The Obsolescence of Trivia’ for $500, Please

  1. Kathryn Exon Smith says:

    Addendum: This article in the NY Times explores a fascinating and related phenomenon: creating fantastic images in your brain’s inner recesses (or “memory palaces”) to help remember things. Worth a read!

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