Transactive Memory and the Machines

A reliance on technology is beneficial, allowing our brains to work harder, faster, and outsource more menial tasks such as keep track of which meetings are in which rooms at which times, to a web application. However, that reliance has sometime-damaging effects when coupled with a lack of understanding about how technology works and impacts us.

Camera phones can impact your memory by altering what you focus on and observe while taking a picture. When you take a photo, your brain remembers less of what you photographed, perhaps because it realizes that in taking a photo, you will have a record which you can reference later and therefore the information is less important to store. Dave Pell elaborates on this in an excellent essay on Medium:

“We’ve ceded many of our remembering duties (birthdays, schedules, phone numbers, directions) to a hard drive in the cloud. And to a large extent, we’ve now handed over our memories of experiences to digital cameras.”

This is especially relevant now since camera phones and picture-taking are near-ubiquitous in many facets of our society. Dave Pell continues, remarking:

“Snapping and sharing photos from meaningful events is nothing new. But the frequency with which we take pictures and the immediacy with which we view them will clearly have a deep impact on the way we remember. And with cameras being inserted into more devices, our collective shutterspeed will only increase.”

Google advertises this loss of brain-held memory as a feature of Google Maps in a card meant to advocate for the benefits of using Google Maps: No need to remember your friend’s address! This handy card will give you the steps necessary to take to outsource that information to Google! Even better, if you use GPS to get there, and get lost, you might forget to look at what’s right in front of you to realize that you’re standing in front of what you’re looking for. Not to mention, if you drive your kids around everywhere, they won’t know where they’re going either—they’ve outsourced that knowledge to you as the chauffeur, and they won’t have a very good understanding of their own neighborhood as a result. Inattentional blindness of a new form, brought about by various technologies and structures of interaction with our world.

Interestingly enough, this is a practice we already follow as humans. Clive Thompson expands on this concept, known as transactive memory:

Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you discover that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. They’re passionate about subject X; you’re passionate about subject Y. So you each begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to the other, treating one’s partners like a notepad or encyclopedia, and they do the reverse.

Nautilus challenges us to examine how much of this transactive memory is being exchanged with Google and other tech services, wondering how much do you remember the old-fashioned way, sans Google?

The threat of all of this transactive memory when using the cloud and tech services is thoroughly established by Nicholas Carr in his Atlantic piece The Great Forgetting. All can be lost if we put our knowledge in the “hands” of machines, he warns. While it can seem doomsday-like, it bodes true for many pilots, such as the Asiana pilot in the crash at SFO. As autopilot becomes something that will be incorporated in our own day-to-day lives with self-driving vehicles, this threat becomes even more real.

When we’re taught to trust technology, but don’t understand the technology in use, people can get seriously hurt. Even worse, much of technology is constructed in such a way as to hide the inner workings from the users–preferred by many, as it is the pretty, clean, and “streamlined” approach to tech for the modern consumer. But this approach creates a sort of trap–if the consumer/user/person engaging with the technology is not trusted with the knowledge and capability to understand the technology that they use in their day to day life, how are they supposed to best exploit it and manipulate it for their own success? Especially with pilots, drivers, and others who use technology to control machines that can create destruction, havoc, and loss of life, it is important that the technology must be capable of being understood: accessible.

A new level of digital literacy is needed, beyond understanding how to access and use the web. A cross-literacy between developers and their users is needed, so that, for example, autopilot developers understand that it’s a serious UX issue if pilots expect certain things to happen in all stages of autopilot, but it happens in all of them but two. And pilots need to understand that the autopilot is not something to be deferred to, that humans are still more powerful and capable than machines in many circumstances. We possess powers of thought and rationalities that machines are still developing. Technology and people can work in tandem in such a way to prevent transactive memory use from harming us.