What is most important?: Remember information or remember where it can be found (that is to say where it had been found previously)?
And besides, does the fact that we know where to find it entail that one does not need to memorize it anymore?
These are obviously issues (in the tradition of the famous article by Nicholas Carr) of particular importance in a connected world where information is a click away. These are questions that researchers at Columbia University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Harvard University summarized in the title of a recent article: Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.
Hereafter some interesting quotes from their work:
"Our research then tested if, once information has been accessed, our internal encoding is increased for where the information is to be found rather than for the information itself."
"It would seem from this pattern that people don’t remember where when they know what, but do remember where to find it when they don’t recall the information. This is 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."
"We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found. This gives us the advantage of access to a vast range of information—although the disadvantages of being constantly “wired” are still being debated."
Wired is the right word in a world where everything is supposed to occur just in time. One can not help but wonder if this generalized "just in time" model, where flows displace inventories, does not create vulnerabilities that we have not yet clearly identified. For the sake of efficiency and profitability, the logic driving our economies eliminates redundancy. Thus, our banks (that give us a lot of trouble these days) operate with minimum equity capital and the maximum leverage. Result: disaster! Corporations try to be leaner and leaner. But a grain of sand is enough (a subcontractor failure, an earthquake, etc) to derail the whole system. Robustness is out, (fr)agility is in!
The obsession is to maximize performance. And we take performance for granted. Worse we (blindly?) trust those who claim to be the masters of performance, those who engineer for us, on our behalf. But guess what, trust ends up more often than not in bad hands!
Fascinating when you think that these profitability and performance metrics (that we are subject to) are often wrong when they are not gamed or manipulated. Surprising when one ventures in the fascinating world of cell biologists to observe that the very issue of robustness is examined there with the greatest attention:
"In short, the trade-off dictates that high-performance systems are often more fragile than systems with suboptimal performance. Interestingly, there are studies reporting suboptimal metabolism performance in Bacillus subtilis and Escherichia coli (Stelling et al, 2002; Fischer and Sauer, 2005). If the trade-off holds, metabolic performance has to be kept suboptimal to ensure a certain level of robustness against environmental perturbations."
"It is important to clearly define robustness and adaptation through evolutionary selection. Here, ‘robustness’ means an individual organism's capability of tolerating external and internal perturbations, such as environmental fluctuations, the addition of drugs, and mutations. Robustness–performance trade-off means that, when two individuals are compared, one is found to be more robust than the other but is outperformed by the other; thus, no individual can be more robust and at the same time exhibit higher performance than others." (Hiraoki Hitano, juin 2010)
"Defining any scientific term is a nontrivial issue, but in this paper, the following definition will be used: 'robustness is a property that allows a system to maintain its functions against internal and external perturbations." (Kitano, 2004a)
Google (used here as a metaphor) gives our brains a remarkable informational agility. But let us not be dupe or candid. This agility comes at a cost for which we are very poor accountants.
Any optimized system is indeed performant (by definition of the optimization) but it is also fragile, that is agile and fragile.
So what is best: To have a robust brain or (fr)agile brain? To paraphrase Nicholas Carr, sometimes we may miss our old brain!