Memory and skills in the time of automation

Carr, Nicholas. “The Great Forgetting.” The Atlantic November 2013. 76-81. Print. Also available (under the title “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines”) online at

According to the biography on his website, Nicholas Carr has written for myriad periodicals, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, The New Republic, The Guardian, and more. He has authored several books, including 2011 Pulitzer Prize-nominated bestseller The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. His focus as a writer is on technology and how it affects culture and economics.

In this article, Carr asks the question: What happens to our skills when so many tasks are automated? The examples he opens up with are frightening but all too familiar. In 2009, just a few months apart, two passenger planes crashed, killing everyone aboard. Most people who follow the news heard about the second of the two accidents, an Air France flight across the Atlantic that sent 228 people to a watery grave. In both crashes, unexpected conditions caused the autopilot to fail, and the pilots were caught off-guard. Ultimately, what doomed each flight was the fact that the pilots were used to spending much of their time essentially monitoring the autopilot, environmental readings, and other computer functions and get too little practice actually flying planes.

As computers have gotten more and more sophisticated, Carr argues, we’re letting them do more and more tasks for us — and we start to forget how to perform those tasks ourselves. We let them spell our words. We get them to show us where to go. We depend on their capability to give us any information we want, as long as we know how to look for it. Carr points out that the idea behind automation and the other benefits software provides is to free up our own time and resources to do other things. However, psychologists have found that people usually fail to take into account that leaning on the crutch of automation affects us cognitively.

What I really like about this article is how it examines the oft-neglected rhetorical canon of memory. Several weeks ago, in a discussion of some of our Digital Rhetoric texts, a classmate and I honed in on a new way of looking at memory: information literacy (the words are hers, derived from our conversation; I liked the terminology so much that I’ve adopted it). Whereas rhetoricians of past decades, centuries, even millennia had to utilize their memory to recite their speeches, and call upon their stored knowledge, we often rely on iPads and teleprompters when delivering live, verbal speeches, and use our phones to look up any fact that we can’t remember off the top of our head. The problem is, thanks to a phenomenon that psychologists call the “generation effect,” we don’t really learn things as well when we simply read or recite facts as we do when we actually put them to use. While I still stand by that definition of memory that Bethany and I came up with, this article challenges that notion. After some rethinking, I may have to revise my position.



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2 responses to “Memory and skills in the time of automation

  1. Right. I also wonder how our reliance on Information Technology affects kairos. Can we really speak in the moment as rhetoricians prepared to use ‘all available means of persuasion’ if we are relying on digital means to provide the information? In other words, will we begin losing the ability to speak extemporaneously if we do not regularly practice expanding our memories but instead rely on “Google” to quickly recall information?

    • I think that question sort of speaks to the difference between communicating in writing and in speech. You have a point: If we can’t speak in the moment because we can’t recall everything off the top of our heads, then that one mode is limited. However: I would argue that that one mode has always been limited, because nobody knows everything off the top of their heads. Most people have a lot of expertise in a few areas, a good knowledge base in several others, and minimal to no significant knowledge or experience on far more topics. That fact hasn’t changed, although I admit that more and more people are relying on IT so much that they achieve that top level of expertise in fewer (if any) areas. But my point is, in-the-moment speech has always been limited. See any political debate in which a candidate has not been properly prepared.

      What IT offers us is more tools to gather and present information for use in nearly every other mode of communication. Is it a tradeoff? You bet. But those tools give us so many more options, and the ability to gain so much more knowledge so easily, that I’d say it just might be worth it.

      I don’t think we’re entirely losing the ability to speak in the moment, but we are allocating our own cognitive capital to things other than achieving highest expertise in many areas. And perhaps we’re learning how to do things so that we can apply knowledge to be gathered on a case-by-case basis to be better rhetors overall.

      What do you think?

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