Monday, October 29, 2007

The Outsourced Brain

David Brooks writes about how we externalize information, using a GPS to get around and becoming reliant on it for directions. For Brooks, this is a mixed blessing, if not altogether a bad thing. (And yet, so many people disagree, to the point where Apple can have a commercial about using the iPhone to surreptitiously look up an acquaintance's name on her wedding site.)

Where Brooks goes wrong is where he tries to make the leap from using these devices as prosthetic memory to claiming that he's losing his autonomy by relying on recommendation engines to make personal judgments for him. He cites the fact that using the iTunes recommender has resulting in him listening to a lot of music he's never heard of. Again, this is a bad thing? Pre-iPod, I doubt Brooks' aesthetic judgments were entirely his own. He writes of being "one of those people with developed opinions about the Ramones," but why the Ramones, and not some other punk band? Because the Ramones were getting exposure from the mainstream media. (I suspect that's a secondary motivation for Brooks' rant - he's now part of that mainstream media that's waning in power.) Music recommenders like Launchcast and Pandora have clued me into a lot of music I may otherwise never have found, but the decision about what I like is entirely my own, perhaps even more so than when I was limited to choosing among what was on the radio. If Brooks is losing autonomy, it's not the

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon points out that this isn't really anything new, and dates back to Socrates complaining about how writing is a crutch for memory. Similarly but more recently, I recall arguments about whether calculators should be permitted in math classes, and to what extent students should be asked to memorize information rather than work "open book." (I get the impression that the calculators have won, at least in middle and high schools, and the textbooks aren't far behind.)

There are really two sorts of informational issues going on, I think. One is the use of "supplemental memory," ranging from all of the "GTD" cultists on sites like 43 Folders and Lifehacker to microcassette recorders and Post-it notes to pen and paper. This is mostly what Brooks is talking about - using a GPS instead of learning local landmarks, using a calculator instead of long division.

The other issue is that of managing all the information out there - the stuff we go out and find, as opposed to the stuff we produce. This is where most of the fabricated "library war" takes place, with people talking about using Google and Wikipedia as an "exocortex." Personally, I don't bother much with electronic devices to store "my" information (I store phone numbers on my cell, and books to look for on my PDA, but that's about it), but rely to a great extent on the ability of research methods to make me a "15 minute expert" on whatever I'd like to know about.

There's so much scaremongering on both sides here ("Libraries don't have any relevance!" versus "If you use Wikipedia, you're blindly accepting unauthoritative sources!") that it's easy to overlook that it's really a conflict of strawmen - the stodgy librarian who won't touch a computer versus the naive techie who takes everything on the internet as truth. Really, we should know better.

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