Careful with Human Memory

#Neural Grafting, #TECH52
I think, and my thoughts cross the barrier into the synapses of the machine, just as the good doctor intended. But what I cannot shake, and what hints at things to come, is that thoughts cross back. In my dreams, the sensibility of the machine invades the periphery of my consciousness: dark, rigid, cold, alien. Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen.
Commissioner Pravin Lal, “Man and Machine”, in “Alpha Centauri”

I’m very critical of just trying to remember ideas. Once a project has a certain size it becomes almost impossible to keep all ideas in mind. It’s also very difficult to quickly restructure ideas or get an overview of the strength of different parts of the project. It’s essentially the point I’m trying to make here — creativity needs organization and this usually means creativity needs tools.

Some tools use advertisement like “it stores information like the human brain does”. Why should this be a plus? It usually doesn’t mean that it forget information by itself, but that it uses a mind map/concept map like structure similar to a semantic network (few tools actually try to store information in neural networks). Apparently, this should help working with the information because it is familiar and “how the mind works”.

I’m also very critical of these tools. Why should it be like the human memory? It should support it. A digger doesn’t look like a hand, nevertheless it’s much better for digging.

Usually these tools are very graphic oriented and need a lot of screen size (to display the maps), become slow and buggy with increasing input, and often degrade into a superficial mind/concept map like structure with attached text files. And there’s another issue — they are often inconvenient to use. Give me a database/wiki or (for smaller projects) an outliner any time, but unless it seamlessly integrates with the human mind (like the quotation above), it shouldn’t be similar. It should have the necessary functions of an idea collection and allow me to remember, generate, find, add, and restructure ideas. Anything that deviates from that and reduces usability is disadvantageous, no matter the similarity to the human brain.

After all, we want to support the human brain, not copy it.


  1. You’re right. Tools should fit the task. They also often make a task reasonable enough to be doable. Who’d dig a mile long, 8-foot-deep trench with their bare hands? Probably nobody. But with shovels and a team of sturdy men, it becomes reasonable. Two centuries ago, we built canals that way.

    The same is true of personal computers. But for them, I doubt I’d be a writer. I wouldn’t have the patience for the type and retype workflow that Tolkien used to create The Lord of the Rings, particularly typing with two fingers on a manual typewriter.

    The new possibilities that technology brings don’t end there. Just yesterday, I was wrestling with what to do with some historical research I did back in the 1980s that’s stored in a Word document. It took me hundreds of hours to create. I shouldn’t just throw it away.

    In Word, it’s virtually worthless. The labor required to turn it into something that someone else might want is be too great. But imported into Scrivener, all that information becomes much easy to sort and rearrange into something worth publishing. Scrivener lets me put those collected-long-ago bits of information into a structure (i.e. by topic) that can then be easily rearranged (i.e. by date). What was too much bother to attempt in Word becomes almost a pleasure in Scrivener. Tools make tasks possible.

  2. Hello Mike,

    yes, I completely agree — while there is a danger in putting too much weight on the “correct” tools, without working tools you cannot create much (well, maybe frustration ;-)). And regarding computers, I’m somewhat hesitant in quoting Steve Jobs, but he’s got a point:

    And while the computer is in my opinion still the best tool for a lot of things, I think that mobile devices will soon close the gap. They’re the Swiss Army Knife of our time and more and more things will move to mobile phones and tablets. There are so many people working on useful apps at the moment that some do get it right and make something that is both new and useful. Something that goes beyond simply transferring something that was done outside a mobile platform on the platform without using its strengths of connectivity, social embeddedness, etc. pp. but using these strengths to create something with which you can create things that weren’t possible before.

    That whole area of distributed intelligence will get very, very interesting … 🙂

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