Memory is a Skill of the Past

I spent a couple of hours playing Trivial Pursuit with some friends today. After very many years since the last time I played, it felt, well, slow and dull, but also somehow weird. This is an attempt to elaborate on some reasons why.

Trivial Pursuit is a board game in which progress is determined by a player’s ability to answer general knowledge and popular culture questions, according to Wikipedia. It was released in 1982, the year I was born. It used to be one of my favorite games. It seems it is now not.

Back when I was a child, strong memory was celebrated as a manifestation of education and knowledge, even acuteness. Most of the tests during high school were associated to remembering fact and figures. My parents were telling us that they would try to buy an encyclopaedia, so that we get access to world’s knowledge, and I was making dreams of being able to read the whole of it.

Fast forward a couple dozen years later. I realize that I now treat memory as a thing of the past, a signal subjectively suggesting lack of intellect, or even a skill that almost should not be. Memory storage and retrieval is a problem largely solved, while human’s brain parallel processing has not be replicated. In other words, cultivating one’s memory skills, rather than her understanding and processing capacities, feels to me like a great waste of utmost precious resources.

Trivial Pursuit was an iconic image of memory being key, the objective and the judge of one’s abilities and success. Today, memory tends to become outsourced to software and I believe for a good reason; great powers should apply to greater tasks, or they become void. At the same time, a large number of professions and processes around us are still waiting for this transition to happen. This imminent evolution towards a memory-agnostic status — games aside, what great stories to remember those shall be.

first posted on medium

  • Themos Kallos

    I used to think like that, that there is no point in memorizing anymore.

    Then I watched this TED talk by Ken Jennings, the ultimate Jeopardy! winner:

    He presents the following argument: if everything can be obtained by looking it up online, then what is it that defines us as individuals? If we all have access to the same data, what makes us different?

    So a completely memory-agnostic society can’t be good. We do need to memorize some knowledge – let’s call it “experience”. My opinion is that we need to “memorize” some data, specifically high-entropy data: data that contain lots and useful information.

  • George Tziralis

    Thank you Themo. There of course are challenges, and we cannot wipe out memory at all (this is a debilitating disease, as far as I am aware). I think however that we are not any close to that yet, actually common sense out there feels 20 years old, so the direction we need to push is towards degrading memory as a skill, rather than keeping this understanding intact. And, of course, experience is a different animal (but I’m talking about retrieval, not processing tasks here :)

  • adamo

    Memory is definitely not a skill of the past, especially now that you swim in a sea of data, most of them inaccurate. What changes though is what you decide to keep into your brain and what not. Memory is a resiliense mechanism. People understand its value when they’ve got connectivity problems.