191659 - THE END OF REMEMBERING Once upon a time there was...

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THE END OF REMEMBERING Once upon a time, there was nothing to do with thoughts except remember them. There was no alphabet to transcribe them in, no paper to set them down upon. Anything that had to be preserved had to be preserved in memory. Any story that would be retold, any idea that would be transmitted, any piece of information that would be conveyed, first had to be remembered. Today it often seems we remember very little. When Iwake up, the first thing I do is check my day planner, which remembers my schedule so that I don’t have to. When I climb into my car, I enter my destination into a GPS device, whose spatial memory supplants my own. When I sit down to work, I hit the play button on a digital voice recorder or open up a notebook that holds the contents of my interviews. I have photographs to store the images Iwant to remember, books to store knowledge, and now, thanks to Google, Irarely have to remember anything more than the right set of search terms to access humankind’s collective memory. Growing up, in the days when you still had to punch seven buttons, or turn a clunky rotary dial, to make a telephone call, I could recall the numbers of all my close friends and family. Today, I’m not sure if I know more than four phone numbers by heart. And that’s probably more than most. According to a survey conducted in 2007 by a neuropsychologist at Trinity College Dublin, fully a third of Brits under the age of thirty can’t remember even their own home land line number without pulling it up on their handsets. The same survey found that 30 percent of adults can’t remember the birthdays of more than three immediate family members. Our gadgets have eliminated the need to remember such things anymore. Forgotten phone numbers and birthdays represent minor erosions of our everyday memory, but they are part of a much larger story of how we’ve supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of technological crutches—from the alphabet to the BlackBerry. These technologies of storing information outside our minds have helped make our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed how we think and how we use our brains. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes how the Egyptian god Theuth, inventor of writing, came to Thamus, the king of Egypt, and offered to bestow his wonderful invention upon the Egyptian people. “Here is a branch of learning that will ... improve their memories,” Theuth said to the Egyptian king. “My discovery provides a recipe for both memory and wisdom.” But Thamus was reluctant to accept the gift. “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls,” he told the god. “They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it

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