What Knowledge Needs to be Embodied, and What Knowledge can be Outsourced to Technology

Posted on January 19, 2010 by


Bastard, you took this idea and this idea.*

Back in May, I wrote about how we in the globally urbanized American culture have “outsourced” a lot of our knowledge from our bodies to technologies.  With that “outsourcing” to technologies, those technologies become “extensions of our minds.”

I’ve been struck by how we continually outsource our knowledges, our experiences, our memories to technology and to other people. We take a picture, scan, write, or type it down for later reference and use. As memory researchers and scholars are keen to say, those technologies act as mnemonic extensions of our brain…So basically in the context of our society which is increasingly global and urban, we like to outsource and externalize a lot of stuff we could know and that we could experience.

Today, the New York Times picked up on some writing via Edge who built on that idea.

Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory…The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is.

Essentially, what they say is that knowledge “outsourced” to technology means that what people actually “remember” or “experience” becomes less important.  It becomes less important because we have a deluge of “memory” to deal with.

We’ve got all kinds of external devices that carry data.  We’ve got pictures.  We’ve got our USB plugs.  We’ve got google docs to write down our thoughts and actually “remember” our papers.  We’ve got delicious.com to remember great links.

“Memories” in the technology world are just data, if I may borrow communications technology linguo.

What becomes important instead of “remembering” memories or “remembering” data is “filtering” data.

I guess that might work for office type jobs like perhaps tech support or writing, but I don’t think it’s easy to outsource memory if you’re some kind of physician or surgeon where the knowledge seems to be remembered within their bodies.

*Obviously, the idea didn’t exactly start from me, but a collection of memory researchers and scholars whose names I will retrieve if absolutely pressed to do so.