Categorising knowledge: beyond phone numbers.

Cody Burke, of Basex, blogged recently on “Overload Stories” about problems caused by the process I might call mechanisation of knowledge. Here’s his scenario:

Your cell phone runs out of battery power, and you need to make a call.  A friend graciously offers to let you use his phone, but as you attempt to make the call you realize that you have no idea what the actual number is of the person you are trying to reach.  Now flash back 15 years and try again.  Odds are you would have had much better luck, because you would have had to memorize that number, instead of relying on the contact list in your phone.

Well I’m not sure. Fifteen years ago you’d certainly have had a handful of numbers you remembered, but the rest of those you wanted to have handy would have been in your address book. If you left that behind, you’d have been in exactly the same trouble. And for wider contacts, I had shelf space for a whole row of phone books.

Burke refers to an academic study testing knowledge retention, discussing and updating the concept of “transactive memory”. If I’ve understood it correctly, this is the way that memory operates when the datum being remembered is connected to a working group or shared task (this isn’t quite the impression I got from Burke’s summary ; if the idea catches your attention, follow the link to the original paper).

ITasITis always goes back to the original sources. Sparrow, Liu and Wegner, writing in Science, define transactive memory thus:

In any long term relationship, a team work environment, or other ongoing group, people typically develop a group or transactive memory [my italics], a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information.

It’s murderously difficult to accurately summarise academic research, but this isn’t quite the impression I got from reading Burke’s summary. What’s interesting is Sparrow et al‘s conclusion: they believe their careful statistically-based investigation provides

preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item. One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory – to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.

Cody Burke is fighting against the concept that we’re becoming internet zombies – as if, somehow, the provision of vast online repository capability removes our human ability to recall. On the contrary, he says: we capitalise on it. There is “a natural (and uniquely) human tendency to learn where information resides and leverage that knowledge to be more effective”.

Or as Sparrow et al put it:

“people forget items they think will be available externally, and remember items they think will not be available … [They] seem better able to remember which computer folder an item has been stored in than the identity of the item itself … We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools … [We] remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found”.

Two comments. When I was a student (we had computers, but not databases) I had a tutor who used to point to a row of folders on his book-case and say “There’s knowledge I know; and knowledge I know where to find”. Raymond Dwek predated Sparrow et al by some 45 years! And there was always, and still is, a third category: knowledge I know how to find. In the manual age this was the difference between referring to a specific article in a learned journal, and working through a whole range of likely sources to check for relevant information. Today, it’s the difference between a categorised index and a relatively unstructured search. I used Google Scholar to find the Sparrow et al article, by the way – I didn’t know where to find it, but I knew how.

Certainly, these days, we shift the content of those categories. Categorisation, whether it’s a database structure, email folders, or keyword search, expands “knowledge I know where to find” by providing new access routes. Search is about “knowledge I know how to find”. We may now not retain so many actual phone numbers in our heads, and may not even recall our own mobile number (after all, we never call our own phone!) but  it’s probably in the address book on our Google account or in iCloud. Information no longer lives in just one place.

And secondly: I don’t speak to a phone number. I speak to a person (or sometimes, to a service). The phone number isn’t information; it’s meta-information (so also, sometimes, is an email address). It’s the means to get to the item you really want, which is the person. And phone numbers were always artificial constructs; we’re gradually doing away with them. On my desk phone, my really-most-frequent contacts are stored by name. On Skype, or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, you contact people by their name or some hash of it, or by some identifier they’ve chosen to describe themselves. Not “unable to remember phone numbers”; moving beyond their use!

Human beings are tool-users. In my first IT job I used to teach programming to postgraduate students (and others) and I always emphasised that the computer is a tool; it extends the power of the human brain in the same way that a crane, for example, extends the power of the human arm. We take advantage of new tools and concepts as they arrive; and our modern array of electronic tools are no different. But this research is a good reminder to be aware of how we are developing in our use of these tools, so that those whose responsibility is to develop the tools themselves can effectively support knowledge workers and facilitate their activities.

• Memory in the Age of the Internet – The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same? Cody Burke, Overload Stories, 21 Jul 2011
• Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D.M., Science, 14 July 2011: 1207745; published online [DOI:10.1126/science.1207745]
Google Effects on Memory: Interview with Betsy Sparrow: Science podcast, 15 Jul 2011
• How sweet to be iCloud, ITasITis, 16 Jun 2011


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