Monday, 10 February 2014

35. Twenty Three (Social Media and the Transactive Memory)

As it's just over a month until my next birthday, I have begun (the very clich├ęd process of) reflecting upon my year as a twenty-two year old and beginning to consider just what twenty-three may or may not bring. I wrote the following piece on the effect of social media on our methods of processing information on my birthday last year - continue reading below or click HERE for a link to the original post.

It was my birthday recently. Ever the elusive individual, I decided that I would run an experiment. Months beforehand, I set my social media privacy settings to conceal my date of birth to see how many people would remember the significance of the day's date when it came around. Sure enough, I avoided the hundreds of messages from primary school classmates, old work colleagues and one-time acquaintances and instead received meaningful and more personal good wishes from my immediate family and close friends. One good friend of mine, after wishing me a happy birthday, asked me why I had so deliberately hidden the significance of the date and answered his own question by suggesting that my college studies were taking too much of a priority in my life. I laughed out loud and accepted his reasoning without challenging it with my own, true, explanation.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point (highly recommended) and was particularly fascinated by his analysis of what he calls the 'transactive memory'; the tendency for individuals to access information by storing it in alternative sources: spouses, family members and friends:

Most of us remember, at one time, only a fraction of the day-to-day details and histories of our family life. But we know, implicitly, where to go to find the answers to our questions - whether it is up to our spouse to remember where we put our keys or our thirteen-year-old to find out how to work the computer...This is how, in a family expertise emerges...Why bother remembering how to install software if your son, close at hand, can do it for you? Since mental energy is limited, we concentrate on what we do best.

Whilst Gladwell convincingly uses the analogy of the home to illustrate this phenomenon on combined memory, or the reliance of others to store information which is of importance to ourselves, I would argue that our current technological era pushes us to rely on gadgets and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to store information which we would otherwise not remember. Ask any one of your friends or relatives to recite the birthdays of those closest to them, and I am certain that they will proceed to reel off dates with ease. Extend the scope of your investigation however, and ask them to recite the birthdays of old university or college contemporaries, work colleagues or neighbours: I would be surprised if their answers were as self-assured or accurate.

We can extend our example beyond the subject matter of birthdays and other monumental dates: modern technological society relies heavily on technology to serve as a point of reference, using resources such as Wikipedia or Google instead of traditional encyclopaedias and dictionaries to access facts outside of our immediate knowledge. The tangible book collection is becoming ever extinct as consumers benefit from handheld devices such as Kindles to store hundreds eBooks or electronic journals. Smartphone devices and applications such as Evernote tell us when we need to attend events, send important emails and how to navigate to a chosen destination. Whilst these various technological alternatives function as useful tools to ultimately make our lives easier, I wonder how they affect the abilities of our own brains. The ability to recite poetry was once the mark of a highly educated young person; now we can simply Google a line or title of a poem into our laptops or tablet devices to aid us. The teaching of history in classrooms once meant that students were able to recite key dates from their country's past - with an omniscient Internet, they need not remember anything. With technology developing at an almost alarming rate, will our children become incapable of storing important information? Will this transactive memory shift away from each other, and instead be thrust upon our electronic devices?

I am not saying that we should all smash our iPhones and BlackBerrys to pieces and become ruthless, devoted Luddites. I'm not even saying that I will memorise the birthdays of every single person that I have ever encountered. But I do believe that it is important that we make more of a conscious effort to exercise our brains - the traditional, technology-free ways - and rely on them to do the job that they were created to do.

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