[Humanist] 25.216 subtle and not so subtle changes

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Aug 5 23:41:56 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 216.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 5 Aug 2011 10:06:44 +0100
        From: Leif Isaksen <leifuss at googlemail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.211 subtle and not so subtle changes
        In-Reply-To: <20110804201749.0BD1F19B518 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Marjorie

thanks for such a great response to what was on my part probably a
rather ill-mannered tirade (and not the only one I wrote that day
either. Must have been the weather :-S). Suffice to say I'm fully in
agreement with you - I'm certainly convinced that the way we memorize
things is changing and I feel it as much in myself as in observations
of others. I also agree that this is something worthy of reflection

FWIW the most interesting thing I've read on the topic lately is the
work of Betsy Sparrow, recently published in Science, on Transactive
Memory. I must confess to not having read the full article yet, just
other people's synopses, of which this seems to be a good one:


The basic observation is that human memory seems designed to optimise
over information overload by storing memories of where to
access/obtain information rather than the information itself. The
pre-digital example they give is of delegating memory to one's partner
(asking one's husband about baseball for example [real example given.
Not mine!]). This seems intuitively correct to me although it seems
they now have the stats to back it up. The really interesting thing to
me, however, is that this is an optimisation problem and only
determined through some kind of subconcious inductive process. As just
one example - I always to forget to check the code I need to pick up
prereserved tickets at the train station because I know it's in my
email on my phone. But my phone always takes 5 mins to reconnect to
the web when I get out of the metro and I'm always arriving about 5.5
minutes before the train leaves. You'd think I'd learn but somehow I
don't :-S The other cautionary tale is that it took me 15 mins to
remember where I'd read the article cited above (searching via Google
of course and thinking it was 'Transactional Memory' which is
something entirely different).

One last thought before I desist in taking up too many Humanist column
inches: I also feel that the Humanities has a special angle on this
one because, in trying to discover what it is to be Human (which is
what I believe our ultimate, and ultimately futile, task to be), the
questions we ask (and the way we approach them) are at least as
interesting as any answers we may come up with. Consequentially, these
subtle shifts in our very mental fabric are neither welcome nor
unwelcome so much as a fascinating new facet for our discipline to

OK, enough from me. Thanks again for your thoughtful (and and entirely
un-grumpy) response

Best wishes


PS This might also be of interest for those with the time to follow:

> Dear Leif,
> Thanks for taking the time and trouble to answer my grumpy email :)
> Actually, I can see how my email could be interpreted in a quite radical way, but I happen to agree with most of your points, and I'm particularly sorry if I came out as thinking that "back in the (g)olden days the material we had access to was 'good' and we are now swimming in garbage", because it's not my views at all.
> The point I was lamely trying to make was mainly about what I feel is a major shift in our relationship with our own memory, as scholars. The amount and nature of the things we have to commit to memory is changing - at least that's how I perceive it. This is probably not, BTW, particular to scholarship, and is just one aspect of a global evolution in our societies.
> You mentioned 10th Century Toledo, the invention of the printing press, or the development of academic journals as phenomena producing "masses of stuff" - right. But what I am interested in, here, is not the process of producing texts or data 'en masse', but the way the existence of those masses changes the way we process knowledge to produce scholarship.
> I do think that we should not neglect the impact of the way we use our memory on scholarship. Having committed to one's memory the same knowledge a medieval scholar had, for instance, cannot be without impact on one's scholarship. Just as being able to query masses of texts going far beyond the capacity of anyone's memory also has an impact. The shift is happening, and it's a given, not something for us to approve or disapprove, just to observe, and maybe reflect upon.
> Medieval scholars reflected a lot on their use of memory, and I believe we should give it more attention.
> Best wishes, Marjorie

More information about the Humanist mailing list