Memory and Technology: From Solzhenitsyn’s Brain to iPhone Notes

Lost ArtWhen’s the last time you committed a poem to memory? What about a phone number or an address? Most of us don’t need to do these things any longer. Google, our laptops, and our many smart toys have made the need to commit information to memory obsolete. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but perhaps it’s worth reflecting on this change and what it means for our brains and our society.

In The Lost Art of Reading (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin quotes from Eva Hoffman’s Time:

“On one level we are relegating more and more of our mental operations to various technologies, with digital devices increasingly acting as prostheses for our faculties. We entrust our sense of spatial orientation to satellite navigations systems; we give mathematical calculations over to the appropriate gadgets…we have less need to remember information ourselves when so much can be stored in our computer’s memory. The feats of memory recorded in oral cultures, or performed by Soviet poets and writers under censorship, seem hardly credible within our zeitgeist. Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized all of her husband’s poetry because it was too hazardous to write it down. Solzhenitsyn committed to memory each page he wrote when he was imprisoned in the Gulag, and the destroyed the evidence. Such powers of retention are unimaginable to most of us and they may become even more so, as we transfer memory to the many storage places available to us – there to be filed way, for instant and effortless retrieval” (89).

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