Transactive Web Memory: Outsourcing Our Brains to the Interwebs

Wikipedia defines Transactive Memory as:

…the process whereby people remember things in relationships and groups. Each person does not need to remember everything the group needs to know, after all, if each person merely stores in memory information about who is likely to have a particular item in the future. This capacity for remembering who knows what is the key to transactive memory…

Now that the internet has become such a deeply ingrained part of our daily lives, are we different? Who are we? And where are we going?

This is part one of a two part post; a brain dump of potentially lilliputian proportions. Part one is about the theory of Transactive Memory, and how our relationship with the web is just that – a relationship, and how that relationship is changing the way we think and organize personal knowledge within and without our brains. Part two is about how various indigenous peoples believed that a camera would steal your soul, about how Marshall McLuhan agreed with them to a certain extent, and about how – without casting it as a necessarily evil development – the internet is accomplishing this same task with increased speed, efficacy, and totality.

Part one:

pickbrainThink about it like this: when you’re in a close relationship with another individual – a girlfriend, a boyfriend, dominatrix, business partners, family members, friends, what have you – you can outsource some of your memory to them. They become external hard drives to your CPU (and vice versa). You are networked, and together you form, in effect, a cross-relational database. If your girlfriend knows that you have an extensive and deep knowledge of… say… Gaming/Tech/Geek cultural minutia, then why on earth would she need to learn that minutia for herself? It’s much more efficient for her to simply store the link information that points to you. And any time something comes up in her life that would require her to access that kind of information, she can access you as a source of information. If you know that information is safe in a external location that can be accessed, then (for the most part) there is no need to worry about duplicating, backing up, storing that information locally (in your own brain). If you know where an answer is, and can access it whenever you want to, then it’s arguably not important to memorize the answer.

Some have theorized that part of the pain felt during a breakup with a significant other can be attributed to basically losing significant amounts of accesible knowledge. It’s like having your external hard drive die and then realizing that your music collection was on there… and only on there. You know what the information is. You know where the information is. But a change in states that renders you permanently unable to access it = heartcrushing fail.

The Web is Your New Girlfriend (or Dominatrix)

dependence1This is exactly the kind of knowledge outsourcing we have entered into in our relationship with the web. It started before we were even online with the onset of [spooky howl] spellchecking. Even now, as I write this, I know that if I spell something wrong it will be underlined in little red dots that are telling me “Hey. Doofus. You misspelled ‘ingrained’. It starts with an ‘i’ not an ‘e’. ‘Engrained’ isn’t a real word… Doofus.”

The effect is that people don’t have to worry about spelling anymore. Just take a crack at it, and right click on it if the little red dots show up. Computer will solve spelling problem for you, but god help you if you need to write something on paper! With ink!!

  • Should we still try to spell things correctly? Yes.
  • Should we still make an effort to memorize the completely ridiculous nature of this English language, its phonetics, and it’s spelling? God yes – please, make an effort, people! But…
  • Do we have to anymore? No. A resounding no.

But that was just the beginning. That first spellcheck application was an offline tool, and now we’ve moved things online, into the cloud. The sheer volume of information we can access is staggering. Our ability to access it is expanding and penetrating further into our lives. We are now approaching a state of near constant access to the web, and with resources like Google, Wikipedia, Email, and Twitter, we can rely on having access to all kinds of information that is important to us.

I used to know all of the phone numbers I needed by heart. These days I can only remember the few relic numbers, artifacts of a time gone by, that are still in use. Actually, that’s not even true – I still remember many of my friends’ childhood numbers that have long since been abandoned… 521-5053 (Josh), 821-8935 (Ted). In fact I can remember more of those useless numbers than I can remember current numbers of friends and family… which is ridiculous. But we’re all in that boat. Even though it would be smart to know many of our commonly used phone numbers by heart, most of us – if we take any precaution at all – just make sure we’ve got them stored in more than one location. And none of those storage locations are our brains anymore.

I think it’s safe to say that outsourcing our information like this has made us vulnerable is certain ways. Have you been camping recently, or caught offline for an extended period of time for some other reason, and the conversation turns to some random actor or movie that you can’t quite remember the name of? How excruciating is the pain of knowing that the answer is only a few clicks away on imdb, if only you were able to make those clicks! If our access is cut off, we’re stewed. Totally and utterly homerow’d. But there are also significant advantages to outsourcing a portion of our brain function.

For instance, right now, SxSW is happening like the Merry Pranksters. And I’m not there. But because I’m plugged in to my transactive memory drive – my virtual brain, and because many components of that drive which I can access (my friends, people I follow on Twitter, etc.), are there acquiring new information, I am able to gain a certain amount of knowledge from SxSW as though I were attending, even though I’m not there.

mnemonicThis is essentially why Twitter is the new buzz and Facebook is struggling to regain their mantle of “Hot Newness” – because Twitter is spreading information, and Facebook, until recently, was focused on establishing conections without as much focus on the realtime flow of thoughts between those connections. Twitter has the capability to expand the size of, and your access to, your transactive web memory.

If we gain inspiration from the things we are exposed to, then our potential for inspiration has grown exponentially because we can now expose ourselves to so much from so many people through the web, social media, and our Twitter feeds in particular. And in doing so we can abandon the necessity to spend so much time memorizing details, and instead spend our time on abstract thinking and strategic reasoning – creating or recognizing connections between the details; details we are exposed to through our information streams like Twitter, or details of which we are aware. Awareness of details is equivalent to knowledge of details if you know where the details are stored and are able to access them.

So… the internet is our brain. Or at the very least, the internet and our brains are now integrated in a very real way. Just as real as the transactive memory we establish in our relationships with ‘real’ people in our lives. So you’d better buy the internet some roses on Valentine’s Day, ‘cuz you don’t want to see what happens when it gets pissed at you.

Up next, part two: Is the internet stealing our souls? And what does outsourcing our brain functions to the internet mean about our individuality?

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