Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

The Internet and the Realities of Managing Human Memories

By Dennis D. McDonald

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Reading Oliver Sacks’ New York Review of Books article Speak, Memory got me thinking about how the Internet augments  how humans relate to their memories, the world, and each other.

In his article Sacks describes how memory — or rather, what we think is memory —  can play tricks on us. That we don’t always remember things exactly as they happened is well known. In criminal trials, for example, eyewitness accounts have been known to be wrong and people have wrongly been jailed — or freed — because of this. Sacks himself describes a detailed childhood memory of an event he never witnessed firsthand which, years later, he remembered as clearly as if he had actually been there.

One point Sacks makes is that memory can’t be thought of simplistically as an always-objective, accurate, and neutral physiological recording device. We can’t always return later to our memories to unearth long-repressed “truths” about reality. How memories get captured and recorded, he says, is subject to randomness, creativity, and natural fluctuations of normal and still-unexplained physiological processes. Assuming that the “truth” about something is buried “somewhere in there” might very well be a mistake, he seems to be saying.

What does this have to do with the Internet? If you read a book like Brainpower: From Neurons to Networks by Tiffany Shlain you might get the impression that our increasing electronic connectedness and access to information are moving us inexorably into an era where the line between the individual and the rest of the world is inevitably blurred. Look at how dependent we are today on the web for basic facts, travel information, and day-to-day human connectedness. (Another testimony to the reality of this is the steady stream of articles we read (on the web, of course) with titles like, “How I unplugged from the web for a month,” or, “How I stopped using e-mail.”)

Personally, I’m not completely convinced that we as a species on the verge of a new level of interconnected consciousness. One reason for my skepticism is that there are still only 24 hours in today. People still have a need for normal physical interaction with friends and family, no matter how easy it is to “stay connected” at a distance. “Being there” in reality is still usually preferable to “being there” electronically.

The other reason is represented by what Sacks seems to be saying about how memory in humans works. We are not really in control of how information about events — witnessed or unwitnessed — is retained in the brain’s biochemical recesses for possible later retrieval. This lack of control seems true whether we’re talking about memories of direct personal experiences (e.g., face-to-face conversations) or memories about things we experience remotely (e.g., online video viewing, real-time chat sessions, Google+ Hangouts, or street views augmented by a near-real-time Google Glass notifications). No matter the source, something seems to happening to memories before they get “laid down” inside the brain.

The significance of this goes beyond classical notions of short-term versus long-term memory. No matter how “plugged in” we become electronically to others and the rest of the world, perhaps there is some kind of upper limit, unknown so far, as to how solid our memories can be. At least until we attain better knowledge of how the brain operates, how we make sense of how human memories are managed seems to to be as much in the realm of religion and philosophy as science and physiology.

Given there are still so many questions surrounding how the brain and memory operate, perhaps we should be realistic — and cautious — as we start experimenting with, say, the electronic augmentation of thought processes via the Internet or the increasingly important Internet of Things. That might sound overly cautious and is not intended as an anti-innovation or anti-creativity sentiment. It’s just a suggestion that maybe we need to understand a bit more about how the brain operates before we start hooking people up electronically to the Internet.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in project management, digital strategy, and technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, Jive Software, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, Social Media Today and Oracle, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at or by phone at 703-402-7382.

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