Monday, August 2, 2010


I have a Palm Z72, a stone-age precursor of the iPad, that goes everywhere with me. I bought it three or four years ago, and I use it as my personal Bible. It has Olive Tree software on it and five Bible translations: the NIV, the Holman, the New King James, the Spanish NIV, and David Stern's Complete Jewish Bible. The three biggest advantages it has are, first, it fits in my pocket, which means I've always got it on me, never true of my previous Bibles; second, I can navigate it a lot more quickly than a bound Bible; and third, it has a search function, so if I remember just a few words of a verse, I can track it down in a matter of seconds. I must admit that I've wondered a few times, since I have it, why I still put effort into memorizing Scripture?

This is actually a specific example of a wider debate raging in circles from education to journalism to brain science: why should students memorize facts if any conceivable "fact" is a few keystrokes away? Why bother to memorize phone numbers if they can all be saved in your cell phone? But on the other hand, what do you do if you lose your cell phone, or your internet access?

This morning, a story on NPR made it clear to me that this isn't a new problem. They interviewed Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist with the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City, and she made the point that human teeth aren't nearly as formidable as the teeth of most other animals, primarily because we're tool users. In other words, our knives, forks, kitchen graters, food processors, all serve as "teeth" in the same sense that a cell phone's contacts list outsources what we once housed in our memories. For that matter, cooking is really just off-site digestion.

The fact that so much of our food is prepared in more and more complex ways gives us a greater degree of control, but it also makes us a lot more vulnerable to mishaps. It's a lot easier to cut yourself with a knife than it is with your own teeth, and a knife makes a better weapon against someone else than an incisor does. And the more we depend on a highly elaborate diet made up of many ingredients and multi-process preparation routines, the more simple disruptions to daily life can sabotage the task of getting fed at all. People who know how to secure simple food, how to live off the land, fare a lot better when things fall apart than highly civilized people do. And for each of those weaknesses, there's an analogue in the storage and retrieval of information.

In particular, primitive hunters and gatherers in prehistoric times had to spend a lot more time and energy just feeding themselves enough to fend off starvation, but in many ways their lifestyle was healthier than ours, and few suffered from obesity or eating disorders. There's plenty to be said about information overload, but what interests me even more is the growing number of people who identify as their number one fear the experience of being absurd in a social encounter. It used to be that I could count on public speaking turning up as most people's top choice, but I've seen survey results over the past few years that pegged small talk with a distant acquaintance as scarier still. And in my gut I suspect that the different ways we produce, consume and retrieve information are at or near the heart of the forces pushing that change. Definitely something I'm keeping my eye on.

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