I have an ongoing argument with James—a fellow journalist and former boss of mine. He contends that within the context of the history of civilization, the need for human
memory recall is now at an all-time low. The culprit, he says, is high technologies like the Internet, which give us such time-savers as e-mail, the World Wide Web and well-paid IT workers.
At most, our only burdens of memorization consist of a handful of passwords that are master keys to our automated memories—memories that merge with the main vein of the Global Village. Who we know and what we need to know are patterned into a galaxy of 1s and 0s that materialize at the flex of a fingertip.
We simply have little incentive—or necessity—to commit our personal and professional lives to memory, says James. With the fountainhead of the Web, the rigors of mental absorption are relaxed and the circuitous routes of research simplified (which incidentally, James would say, goes for cars with Global Positioning Systems that tell us when to turn). The positive result is akin to freeing ram space from our brains and the subsequent illusion of more time to spend on important pursuits.
For my part, I'm not convinced that we humans have developed the mental savvy to cash in on our plug-in memories. For one, James' contention raises the well-worn debate of the quantity of time versus the quality of time. I'm sure few would argue that the Internet for many has been a boon to procrastination, and a feeling that what we absorb is disposable and dispensable since it's all only a download away. And while it's hard to argue the conveniences of instant sports updates, immediate news, online shopping, downloadable music and the colossal garage-sale universe of eBay, the Web too easily leads us into the marshy weeds of fluff when it comes to intellectual pursuits.
With the commonness of e-mail—where the rules of grammar are relaxed and spell checks cover our butts, I also suspect our collective writing skills have taken a turn for the worse.
We are the Gist Generation. We have acquired a taste for hit-and-run, cut-and-paste knowledge. We expect a home page or e-mail correspondence to give us the gist and only the gist—time is money and you're a click away from an iconographic trash can, so get to the point.
What we get is an iffy illusion of learning—like a one-hour pbs special on the big cats of Africa—the Web is wonderful at filling nutshells of knowledge that rarely overflow with substantial scholarship.
I would even argue that when engaged in online learning, it's hard to resist the urge to coast through each course on cruise control and merely focus on the gist.
Several years out of college, I find that I'm nostalgic for the fusty aromas of a library. I miss textbooks, with their publisher's stamp of approval and meaty pages of detail. Textbooks carry an air of integrity, whereas the Web, even in its most reliable moments, is forever pitching products throughout its infinite pages. It's like sprinting through an art gallery. Here you are trying to research the Roman Empire while baby billboards lure you to the lowest airfares to Italy or super deals on Andiamo luggage.
At the end of the day, perhaps it doesn't matter what we absorb. As David Halberstam of the New York Times wrote, "Memory is often less about the truth than about what we want it to be." I suspect this holds true for learning.