The diminishing value of human memory
“In ancient times, having power meant having access to data. Today, having power means knowing what to ignore.” — Yuval Noah Harari.
Human memory is arguably one of the most important assets for us, humans. Without it, we would not be at the top of the chain (relatively speaking). For tens of thousands of years, human memory has helped us thrive. Our collective knowledge of plants that were safe or unsafe to consume was probably one of the very early ways we used memory to improve our chances of survival. We then utilized our collective knowledge of geographies to push the boundaries, and endeavor across oceans and deadly mountains. We then built sophisticated systems to pass on our knowledge by inventing scripts and spoken languages. And now, after a brief moment around the sun, the absolute value of human memory seems to be finally diminishing.
The information age is an age of abundance—the abundance of access, the abundance of data, and the abundance of time as a result of easy access to data. Almost everything one needs can be found on the internet. In pre-internet days, either a person knew things, or they didn’t. There were no two ways about it. Either one knew about the origins of dinosaurs, or they spent twenty minutes skimming through a 2000-page encyclopedia hoping to find answers. In a sparse-information society, a person with readily-available information brought value. Somebody who remembers birthdays is a better friend than one who forgets. Somebody who remembers directions is a better driver than one who doesn’t. But that has changed.
The 21st century has witnessed overturning of what was once considered the most glorious taxi fleet in the world — London’s black cabs. One of the toughest exams to crack, The Knowledge is an exam every London Taxi driver has to pass. To do so, aspirants have to learn everything about everything within the 36 square-miles that is the city of London. They have to commit to memory 25,000 streets and 50,000 points of interest like pubs, clubs, galleries, etc. Today, GPS systems offer pretty much the same things, minus the British humor, at a much lower cost. Satellite navigation technology has disrupted an industry that was built on memory and stood on knowledge. That is not to say that these cab drivers don’t bring value, they do. But it’s a lot less than when they were the only ones who knew how to get around.
The ones with a good memory can retrieve information within a split second. The rest can retrieve the same information in a few seconds with the touch of a button. With the exception of a few time-sensitive situations, does it really matter if one is a few seconds faster than the other? I don’t believe it does. Even though we aren’t quite able to export human memory just yet, we’ve made significant progress. Calendars, contacts, reminders, password keychains, alarms, Evernote, Siri/Alexa — they’re all here for the simple memory-intensive tasks so we can free up the brain for more complex tasks. Forgetfulness now has a cure!
In many professional fields, it is crucial to know things. But in business and in life, having information is not a competitive advantage anymore. In a way, the internet has made it a level playing field for the know-it-alls and the know-it-nots. Anybody can learn anything they want to learn. Barriers to obtaining information are low, and only lowering with time. But knowing what to do with the information and then doing it — that’s where the value lies.