David Pogue on Memory

The August, 2013 issue of Scientific American features a grossly irresponsible column by David Pogue.  The column, titled “The Last Thing You’ll Memorize,” suggests that perhaps mobile internet appliances have made memorization obsolete, arguing by analogy to the electronic calculator’s effect on upper-level math classes.  Arguments by analogy are a rather tenuous way to make a point, and Mr. Pogue’s argument is no exception.

Mr. Pogue writes: “As society marches ever forward, we leave obsolete skills in our wake.  That’s just part of progress.  Why should we mourn the loss of memorization skills any more than we pine for hot type technology, Morse code abilities or a knack for operating elevators?”  The sentiment doesn’t appear to be intended as an intellectual provocation.  Mr. Pogue even appeals to the wisdom and technological foresight of his child, who — because of “smart phones” — couldn’t imagine “why on earth should he memorize the presidents” from his own country’s history.  Students are allowed to use calculators on school exams, Mr. Pogue reasons, so why shouldn’t students be allowed to use “smart phones” to save them the trouble of having to remember things?

To extend Mr. Pogue’s argument slightly: does word processing make spelling obsolete?  Do students no longer need to memorize all the idiosyncratic spellings found in the English language?  Should we conclude that literacy is an obsolete skill?  Should we simply forgo novels in favor of movies, since cinema is a newer technology?

The flaws in Mr. Pogue’s reasoning begin with his choice of metaphor, though the reasoning behind his choice to argue by analogy fails on closer inspection as well.  While we may not exactly “pine for hot type technology,” there are a wide range of positive social values attached to the preservation of historical skills.  Laser toner hasn’t replaced printing and engraving in all cases: artists still make etchings, photographers are still interested in the craft, quality, physicality, and historical relevance of chemical photography, artisan printing presses still set type, and most global currencies involve an active social role for the older, traditional skills, required for coining currency and printing bills.

New technology doesn’t always replace old technology; this is a biased view of recent history, promulgated to justify commercial planned obsolescence in the face of diminishing returns.  Often enough, new technology simply gives old technology a new value.  The tourist economy of Williamsburg, Virginia, depends on maintaining skills, architecture, and other cultural practices from the Colonial Era, as a sort of living museum.  Artists still practice ancient pottery skills, often producing original artifacts of greater economic value than comparable mass-produced items.  Cubic zirconium hasn’t replaced diamonds in engagement rings.  Just because “Morse code abilities” are no longer a marketable skill, there are historical documents and records containing Morse code and references to Morse code, and preserving knowledge of these valuable artifacts for future researchers is part of what Universities do.  And, while one may have trouble today landing employment with “a knack for operating elevators” — since automation and computerization now take care of these jobs in places like classy hotels, or high-rise office buildings — it may well be worth mourning how many paying jobs automation has replaced and continues to replace, especially given the current state of the labor market, and the bleak prospects for millions upon millions of indebted college graduates.  Even the grocery store cashier appears to be an endangered species these days.

So, to consider Mr. Pogue’s central analogy — that of the calculator — we should begin by pointing out that while we may say that a calculator is good at math, we don’t conclude from that fact that it is smart.  Branding aside, “smart phones” aren’t smart because they can substitute for human memory in some cases.  The reference capabilities of “smart phones” may create opportunities for new skills — such as, an ability to formulate queries that will identify a factual needle in a haystack — this is quite different from saying that such a new skill can occupy and replace the role of memory.  The value of a “smart phone” as a source for reference material is also highly contingent upon the quality of the source a user chooses to rely on: absent some sort of peer review process for Google listings, this would seem to be at the very least a precarious substitute for the sort of intellectual cannon with which students are typically acquainted through education.  It is worth noting, on this last point, that books didn’t replace memory, even after the printing press made it cheap enough to fill libraries: the recording and storage of facts in books and libraries serve to make knowledge more accessible — not to replace memory — and Mr. Pogue provides no real evidence that Internet search engines are qualitatively different in this regard.

To further address the issue of online source material, Mr Pogue’s argument also assumes that the future of the Internet will look like it does today, with vast quantities of relatively high-quality material available at no cost.  This may not be a safe conjecture at all: more and more corporations are looking for more ways to make money by offering proprietary services online.  Bloggers may want to start getting paid for what they write.  Commercial media outlets are erecting “pay walls,” FaceBook keeps its user-contributed content walled-off from Google and the public Internet, peer-to-peer networks are being challenged by legal action coordinated with competing commercial services backed by large corporations, and electronic surveillance may exert a chilling effect on what independent platforms are willing to publish, or what individuals are willing to read.  The laws surrounding intellectual property rights are highly contentious at this point in time, affecting what types of reference material may be shared or quoted from, and in what manner.

Mr. Pogue concludes his argument by analogy by asserting: “Calculators will always be with us.  So why not let them do the grunt work and free up more time for students to learn more complex concepts or master more difficult problems?  In the same way, maybe we’ll soon conclude that memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task.  Maybe we should let the smartphone call up those facts as necessary…”  Beyond the aforementioned problems with Mr. Pogue’s assumptions about the character and quality of the information that will be available on “smart phones” in the future, there is an internal contradiction here in his position: if “progress” tends to continually replace technologies that once seemed current, on what grounds does Mr. Pogue suppose that the capabilities of today’s “smart phones” will remain stable enough to re-organize educational curricula around them?  Every five-function calculator performs subtraction and multiplication in an identical fashion, but Google is not “objective” in the same way, and customizes search results based on a user’s past search history.  What if one “smart phone” manufacturer blocks out Google access due to the terms of some other licensing agreement?  Will it really “free up more time” if students need to use trial-and-error techniques to formulate queries on search engines, rather than simply recall the fact they’re looking for?  If “memorizing facts is no longer part of the modern student’s task,” by what standard then will students be able to recognize whether a piece of information they retrieve from a search engine is reliable or not, or whether an argument they come across is historically well-grounded?  Students could simply defer to the authority of certain trusted sources, but doing so would undermine Mr. Pogue’s advocacy that students “focus on developing analytical skills.”

But to look past the analogy, and to get to the point: many people consider loss of memory function one of the most terrifying prospects imaginable.  Amnesia may be a staple in soap operas, but Alzheimer’s disease is a reality for many Americans.  Loss of memory function is clearly a mental handicap.  Any chess player will tell you that the ability to remember the past few moves is at least as important as the ability to project a few moves into the future: if you don’t keep track of what your opponent is doing, you can’t identify your opponent’s strategy.  If you can’t remember a series of articulated statements, you can’t follow an argument.  Memory is the basis of learning, and therefore of knowledge, and, by extension, wisdom.  Deprecating memory skills is a recipe for a population of morons and zombies.  If we don’t teach students how to remember things, we not only deny them the promise of education itself, but we deny them the basic skills needed to think strategically.


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