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October 26, 2007

The External Brain

David Brooks gets the digital era just right. "I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more," he writes, "but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.'

Utterly true. Google's like the brain I never had, the knowledge I never acquired. Its continued existence seems utterly implausible. But so long as it's around, I don't need to really read anything. I just need to catalogue the existence of things I might one day read. I don't so much study web sites as scan for impressions, for markers, for key words I'll need if I want to return. I don't need the knowledge so much as a vague outline of what the knowledge is and how to get back. Now, if only all books were searchable on Amazon.

October 26, 2007 | Permalink


So true. I realized recently what a bad speller I had become since the dawn of Spell Check. And I even won a spelling bee when I was young!

Posted by: jambro | Oct 26, 2007 9:12:24 AM

This is completely wrong and Brooks has a motive here. Tools such as Google don't allow us to know less, they extend our capabilities. Google doesn't lessen our mental capacity, they expand it. Our minds aren't less "full" (whatever that means) as he implies and you seem to go along with, because we have Google. It's an utterly unscientific consideration of how our minds work and relate to the world. It sounds reasonable, but it's wrong and insidious. There is a political point here, as always with Brooks. He is, at heart, anti-modern.

The notion of the extended mind is not new. Read Andy Clark, or the book "Smart World."

Posted by: pblsh | Oct 26, 2007 9:41:55 AM

Whenever I have a friend complain to me that they're having trouble remembering something, I remind them that humans invented writing for a reason. The internet is just a massive extension of that. It makes us smarter, though, if you get out of the staid view of intelligence as an individual trait and start to think of it as a collective one.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Oct 26, 2007 10:09:42 AM

It's much more valuable to know how to do research than it is to just "know things." The fact that you are really good at researching means that you have established yourself as the go-to guy for health policy in the blogosphere and increasingly outside it. But you don't have to limit yourself to that one field. Down the road you can switch to focus on something else if you want, or become more of a generalist.

The problem we run into is that most people don't know how to research a subject, and so rely upon whatever level of understanding and information they already have. Political pundits in particular are horrible about this, establishing a narrative and then relying on it for the rest of their lives no matter what new information may come.

I'm not surprised that Brooks would decry the rise of near-infinite online information and things like Google to help the masses access it. Before this he and his colleagues were the Arbiters of Truth. People may have not liked what they said, but there wasn't any way for them to know that X person really didn't say Y, or that A event happening in B location looks quite different than it's portrayed in the American media.

Last year's elections were troubling to journalists most of all, I'd say, because they showed an electorate resistant to narratives the pundits have been working on for decades. And after years of being told by every mainstream media outlet that opposing the war=opposing the troops=loving Osama and all terrorists, the American people decided to oppose the war. Without the uppity bloggers and their ability to do their own research, widespread opposition to the war would either have never come about or, as in the case of Vietnam, would still be a few years off.

In short, Brooks and his ilk had a nice, comfortable gig, and Google ruined it. Just because they keep writing columns as if nothing has changed - showing how narrow their range really is - doesn't mean they can't at least instinctively see that their way of life is over.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 26, 2007 10:10:28 AM

Hmm, Ihave to admit that I was very sceptical about you praising a Brooks column, a beltway insider I stopped reading long ago because he's been wrong on almost everything. But you're right, this story is really interesting. While I certainly not the kind of guy who uncritically embraces new digital gimmicks (no sms, no itunes, no gps, and rarely an email), I recognize that I'm increasingly relying on the organizer functions of my phone. Is this a good thing? Isn't there some hidden danger in depending on digital helpers? I don't know, and Brooks doesn't seem to be totally convinced in this article, too. but it's still a surprisingly good column. Now, if only he would totally stop covering politics...

Posted by: Gray | Oct 26, 2007 10:31:38 AM

I don't have anyone's phone number or birthday memorized due to the outsourced brain.

Posted by: Petey | Oct 26, 2007 10:36:51 AM

Don't confuse "memory" with "intelligence." The internet is an indispensable source of information, but you can run into trouble if you let it do all your analysis and thinking for you, too.

The internet gives you a lot more dots to connect, but you still ought to do most of the connecting yourself.

Posted by: martin | Oct 26, 2007 12:00:19 PM

There is this relevant concept:


Posted by: Jeff | Oct 26, 2007 12:03:17 PM

There is this relevant concept:


Posted by: Jeff | Oct 26, 2007 12:03:32 PM

See xkcd: http://www.xkcd.com/333/

Posted by: JBL | Oct 26, 2007 12:20:11 PM

And here I thought young people were dumber than dirt. I had no idea they were just outsourcing their knowledge to free space in their brains for, uh, you know, other stuff.

Posted by: Jon Swift | Oct 26, 2007 12:52:32 PM

This post is a joke, right? Just what do you think you're doing, Ezra?

Posted by: TLB | Oct 26, 2007 12:59:56 PM

I just need to catalogue the existence of things I might one day read. I don't so much study web sites as scan for impressions, for markers, for key words I'll need if I want to return.

I find myself doing this too (curse my 100 bookmarks, feeds saved in Bloglines and emails to myself!) and I think it's probably a bad idea. On more than one occasion I've bookmarked something for later use, only to find out that it didn't say quite what I thought it did on first impression, and that I might have learned something if I'd bothered to read it in the first place. I think the archiving of knowledge for our personal use is great, but it's easy to get carried away and fail to retain any actual understanding of what we're glimpsing at.

Oh and incidentally, David Brooks really ought to give credit where credit is due. The National Geographic already did a story about memory that discusses this topic incidentally, in their November issue.


Posted by: Xanthippas | Oct 26, 2007 1:26:00 PM

You can get away with this, Ezra, becasue you have enough internalized education to be able to apply filters to what's on the Internet and determine what is or is not useful, relevant information.

Imagine someone without that baseline education and experience trying to use the Internet to find information.

Posted by: lux | Oct 26, 2007 1:52:52 PM

That post or its origin is incredibly perceptive...
useful to my understanding the current modes of communication/learning.

It explains why, in fact, I read hard or E- much less
and clip more...a lot.
With that, of course, goes organizing the bits...
which requires structure and organization, surely...
maybe substituting for old style comprehensions?

The kind of reading we all do on-line IS pretty fulsome and
fast-paced - has to be - ...just hardly ever concentrated.

Posted by: has_te | Oct 26, 2007 1:57:38 PM

I don't need to really read anything. I just need to catalogue the existence of things I might one day read... I don't need the knowledge so much as a vague outline of what the knowledge is and how to get back.

This is true if you're only talking about reference knowledge -- you probably don't need to remember dates, names, etc. But you lose a whole lot of potential 'synthetic' knowledge if you don't 'really read' anything. If creativity is basically the combination of existing elements in unexpected ways, then you need to have at least some random substantive content rattling around in your brain in order to make any interesting cognitive leaps.

Posted by: LP | Oct 26, 2007 2:29:54 PM

Of course, this just what the Sumerians said about cunieform.


Posted by: jayackroyd | Oct 26, 2007 2:59:02 PM

If only this idea had been thought of before the digital era. If only humans had come up with the idea before computers came around. if only there was some institution, soem set of techniques, some sort of trained professional dedicated to this sort of activity.

If only Ezra would get off his ass, turn off his computer and visit a friggin' library...

Posted by: Phoenician in a time of Romans | Oct 26, 2007 3:46:03 PM

Lets be real, the interent absolutely sucks. It is the greatest boon to pretention ever invented. I am sick to death of people posturing as erudite after 5 minutes of googling on any given subject.

Posted by: pimp hand strikes! | Oct 26, 2007 4:49:03 PM

SOCRATES: I have heard a tradition of the ancients, whether true or not they only know; although if we had found the truth ourselves, do you think that we should care much about the opinions of men?

PHAEDRUS: Your question needs no answer; but I wish that you would tell me what you say that you have heard.

SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth,but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

PHAEDRUS: Yes, Socrates, you can easily invent tales of Egypt, or of any other country.

Posted by: Plato | Oct 27, 2007 10:40:08 PM

Brooks quotes John Steinbeck: " a fella ain’t got a mind of his own, just a little piece of the big mind — one mind that belongs to everybody."

This is the same kind of perspective that the Hindus arrived at in their Upanishads thousands of years ago. They declared: "Brahma is the universe and I am Brahma." Brooks could have made a reference to this.

The Hindus did not have the ipod, the GPS, nor the internet. Om Shanti.

Posted by: Naina Marbus | Oct 28, 2007 4:59:17 PM

Did I miss something or did we all go around memorizing everything and being uninfluenced by recommendations before the existence of the internets and the google? I guess I must have hallucinated all those encyclopedias, phone books, maps and the importants of bestseller lists.

The main difference is now more people can do research, rather than just the elite, the priveleged or the exceptionally obsessive / compulsive - all of which I was back in the days when all I had was the readers guide to periodicals, but I welcome the ease now.

Honestly, Brooks sounds as cranky as Socrates, but 2,600 years older and less coherent. You keeds with the constant text messages on the papyrus.

Really Ezra, I expect more.

Posted by: softdog | Oct 29, 2007 11:02:36 AM

Dangit, someone has to say it:

"Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parent, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers."
-- Socrates

You kids get off my lawn!

Posted by: RobW | Oct 29, 2007 4:46:50 PM

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