Creative Destruction

March 7, 2008

Outsourced Memory

Filed under: Education,Ethics — Brutus @ 1:15 pm

Cheating on a standardized test isn’t exactly unheard of, especially when competition is tough and the stakes are high. (Otherwise, who cares?) Recently, a student in Bangkok used a watch-phone capable of receiving text messages to take university entrance exams, which resulted in a variety of watches with similar capabilities being banned from test sites. The educational establishment is (so far) unwavering in its insistence that students learn and commit material to memory prior to taking exams. A chink in that armor appeared with the approval of using calculators on tests. An argument can be made, however, that open-book or open-source (as in electronics) testing should be considered for the future.

A student who has mastered and memorized a body of knowledge has indisputable advantage over another who has to search for that same information, but it’s a sign of the times that fewer students, and more importantly, fewer businesses, believe that it’s worthwhile to possess information except in the rarefied instance of test taking. In the real world, looking something up and problem solving on the fly is challenging the notion that acquired knowledge and skill give people better (read: more efficient) job performance.

I’ve yet to see any substantial evidence that the Google effect or the Wiki effect — the outsourcing of memory, in short – has significantly diminished the value of traversing a large body of knowledge to be prepared for adult life, be it the level of a high school diploma or an advanced university degree. However, it’s clear that the communications age and its technologies have placed at our fingertips amazing information resources that many of us consult daily. Ironically, that has inadvertently cheapened the value of expertise in many walks of life, as most anyone with a few functioning brain cells can easily acquire the information to handle most of life’s tasks and quite a few job requirements. Our attitudes toward what constitutes cheating have been similarly degraded as the obvious utility of all types of workaround sweep aside ethical considerations. It remains to be seen whether educators, who themselves are known to indulge in cheats of one sort or another, can uphold the value of learning the traditional way. If it were left to business, we’d all be cheating.


  1. Yes and no. At the brutually factual level, memory is less important. No one has a practical need to memorize the digits of Pi, or the text of epic poems, or the names of all of the municipalities in Colorado.

    But, it remains easy to make profound logical or conceptual mistakes without experience.

    For example, a guy who e-mailed me once knew which states had “no fault” divorce, but didn’t realize that he didn’t know what it meant. He thought that “no fault” divorce, meant that you couldn’t get a divorce even if your spouse was at fault.

    Similarly, many diagnostic tasks, be it plant or mineral identification, disease diagnosis, or legal issue spotting, are profoundly more rapid and more reliable when conducted by someone with a large pool of relevant knowledge. One can do those kinds of tasks step by step using “if/then” logic, but the chain of reasoning gets long, the process is slow, and many steps have significant uncertainty in them if you aren’t familiar with the common use of the specialized meanings of the terms used in the decision tree.

    Comment by ohwilleke — March 10, 2008 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

  2. I’m more interested in the “yes” case, where understanding the complexities of interactions between discrete parts requires more context than simply looking something up provides. For example, without having studied biology, I don’t understand the interactions of things such as hormnones, genes, chromosomes, proteins, enzymes, amino acids, etc. Similarly, I’ve learned and forgotten the differences between ohms, watts, volts, and amps, so I still don’t understand how they work together. It might be that those understandings are unimportant to a generalist like me, and I’ve gotten through life without knowing them, but I’m fortunate to understand complexity in other areas, which has trained my mind to be able to think systematically. While any particular piece of knowledge is arguably expendable, it’s unlikely for a person to develop any intellectual rigor without at least one or two areas of expertise.

    Comment by Brutus — March 11, 2008 @ 10:27 am | Reply

  3. Would you give points for ingenuity to girls (or boys) who write barely visible mnemonics in the pleats of their plaid skirts?

    Comment by Kathleen Maher — March 19, 2008 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  4. Is this a faded memory or a strategy you currently promote with your children and/or students? I rather prefer tattooing the inside of one’s eyelids.

    Comment by Brutus — March 21, 2008 @ 12:11 pm | Reply

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