Brains, Tech, and Memory Revisited

Digging Up (Brain)Worms

I was thinking again about the only livejournal post I ever wrote, and strangely enough it is still there, though there are now a lot more irvingw’s on the Internet than there used to be. In fact, finding the article needed me to use the kind of skills I talked about, way back in twenty-ought-seven.

Here it is, in full:

Brains, Tech and Memory

This has been on my mind for a while…

The effect of technology on people is reasonably well documented. People complain about seeming to have less time than they used to, about being harassed by communication devices (presumably the perceived benefit of the device prevents them simply turning it off), and about issues such a privacy, identity theft, and pictures of vast gaping anuses on the Internets.

Lauded qualities of tech include the ability to more easily find, process, and manage information, whether that be your contacts, your porn stash, or your references.

External Information Storage

I’m of the opinion that these benefits have been leading towards a shift in the way the human brain operates (within that section of the population that is heavily exposed to, and makes use of, the above kinds of technology). Douglas Coupland, in 1995′s Microserfs, had one of his characters stating that pretty soon, the amount of information stored outside of humanity’s collective consciousness would be larger than that held within our combined brains. This point has to have been reached by now, and it must be having some effect on the way we interact with information.

I think people are becoming less ‘memory machines’ and more ‘information processing machines’. I usually ask people I talk to about this, who remember when mobile phones were not commonplace, or even available, to think about the way they used to deal with phone numbers compared to now. Most (not all) are of the opinion that they used to be able to recall many more numbers than they now can, even those ‘important’ numbers (say loved ones, friends, work, family). They have externalised the process of information storage and retrieval. More so, we have done this as a species. You no longer ask someone else, but something.

Yeah, and, so, what?

So what?, some might say. Granted, this is somewhat interesting in that we are thinking in different ways, perhaps it is a sign that we are not using those parts of our brain that we used to, so some neurological change may be underway. It’s just a form of evolution that allows us to best make use of the world around us.

This may be true, but, paranoid that I am, I can’t help but feel that there are some real negatives that could result from such a shift in brain usage.

If humans become less involved in the information storage and retrieval business, and instead use their brains to process the information that they get from elsewhere, they may be a risk that people give too much credibility to externally sourced information. This has already been seen with Wikipedia, for example, ranging from wholly fictitious articles to false academics being quoted in the press. It sounds daft, but, suppose someone changed a single digit on one of the lesser-used numbers stored in your mobile phone. Would you notice, if the new number had someone on the other end of the line who sounded enough like the person you were expecting?

Now I descend into the tinfoil-hatted realm of the Internet Conspiracy Theorist, but hopefully with some logic to back me up. If people end up only processing data without questioning its authenticity and credibility, to me the dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four does not seem that much of a fantasy.

As always, I suppose my only possible counter against this is to watch who controls the information, but, as equally always, whoever does control it, really does control us all.

Where I’m @

I think that I have become much more of a concept-familiar programmer than a language-familiar programmer. These days I am focused on the things I need my language to do, rather than its capabilities. A downside of this is that if the Internet were to collapse, I’m not going to be able to write code particularly efficiently.

Part of this I blame on the amount I have used PHP in the last few years – when you have to call a function like getcwd() and you’re unsure if it is get_cwd() or getcwd() or getCwd() – because the core functions of PHP don’t have any consistent naming convention, you’re going to take the few minutes to check you’re doing it right. Luckily it’s really easy to look up PHP function syntax. A PHP IDE with built in code completion would solve this, but I’ve yet to find one that makes me happy, and that breaks my excuse anyway so I’ll just ignore that for now.

The benefits, for me, mean that I can play it loose and flexible when it comes to managing my data and process models. I’m not really constrained by what I know about what a language can do, the way I was at the start of my career. Many times I did something without really thinking, because that was the way I had been taught. Using my information-finding skills rather than my information-recalling skills has meant that I’ve been able to stay current with development practices, and I’ve found that there are lots of ways to achieve the same implementation of a function, class, or design pattern.

The separation of design and code is helping me develop faster and with a greater assuredness that I’m producing something I know my client needs. I’m also constantly discovering, learning, and where relevant, contributing. I believe the programming community in particular is very good at posting solutions to problems, because we all know the annoyance when our search skills let us down, and I am sure most of us know the utter outrage when we find someone having the same problem as ours, in a thread with multiple posts, only to be thwarted at the last moment because we’re reading “never mind, I worked it out for myself. Thanks anyway!”

The good old tinfoil hat still fits somewhat

As far as the idea that controlling information == controlling the populace, I’m now living in the US instead of the UK, and it seems there’s even more to worry about here. Zuckerberg is pushing zero-privacy, while WikiLeaks is currently releasing information that purports to show that ex-CIA are setting up covert surveillance via the nation’s network of security cameras, and possibly even selling it for a price. China keeps its citizens behind a firewall, while encouraging development of social application clones – they have their own facebook, their own twitter. The rulers of countries facing a public revolt attempt to quash organization by ‘turning the Internet off.’ The idea that knowledge is power has not been ignored by those who have power, and it would do those of us with precious little to pay attention, too.

Not a conclusion, just another 5-year pause

I’m happy in this updated world, compared to the one I lived in when I wrote the original piece. I’d put some of that down to being older, married, and generally happier with my life. I’d also say that I’m comfortable with the way I’ve adapted to become better at finding information – it seems to be the way to go. Finally, I am concerned with the way things are going on the privacy front, but I’m not in a position to do much about that from where I am now. I’ll check back in another 5 years or so and see where I’m at, provided neither I or this post have been spirited away by agents of fear and malicious destiny.