Storing Other People’s Knowledge

To the great surprise of many people in my life, I am not an Indiana Jones fan. I’ve seen all but the second one (because everyone who knows me even slightly well is convinced I’d never make it through the movie). My memory of the first is limited to something that happened while I was watching. My memory of the most recent is sitting there for most of the movie understanding why a friend warned me about it to the best of his Indiana Jones-loving ability, right up until I was suddenly looking at  a poor rip-off of Stargate.

But I love the third one. It’s the only one I own, and I watch it with some regularity. At one point, the Joneses are at a crossroads. Indy wants to head on toward the Grail, but his father insists they have to go retrieve his journal from the Nazis. He then explains that his journal is the key to getting to the Grail safely, and the following conversation ensues:

“Can’t you remember?”
“I wrote it down in my diary so that I wouldn’t have to remember!”

In Dr. Jones’ defense, he is a researcher. Researchers often have a lot of material to keep up with on their given question, and it makes sense he wrote it down to keep from losing it. But his response highlights a problem, both for them and for us.

What Dr. Jones suffers is what I like to call Distributed Cognition Fail. Information he needed and had somewhere within his possession wasn’t available to him at a moment when he wanted it (or really, when his son wanted him to want it) because it was locked up in an object he didn’t have access to. Because we have all of this information coming at us on a daily basis, we have a similar problem. How often have you bookmarked a page or saved it to an app like Instapaper, only to forget it was there and discover it again months after it would have been useful? How many times has someone shared a resource, and you’ve said, “It’s fine. They have it when I need it. I don’t need to save it myself.”, only to have the person shut down wherever they had it stored or delete the resource all together?

We really don’t think about it, but the current technological boom we’re experiencing is making us digital pack rats, gathering information we know should be useful, but never really thinking about it past that. Storing all of that information in all of these places with the noble intention of coming back to them later when we need them is called distributed cognition.

Distributed cognition is a lot like storing your money at separate banks. You may feel safer, but it takes a lot more effort to access your money when you want more than what one bank is storing. Likewise, your information is safely stored in Instapaper, on Tumblr, on Pinterest, or on an industry expert’s Twitter profile, so you don’t worry about it until you need it or suddenly remember you have access to it. Then you have to go to all of the trouble of finding it (not always as easy as it sounds, even armed with Google), hoping that you have the right access to find it at the moment you need it. It’s slow and inefficient, no matter how appealing the idea of not managing all of that knowledge by yourself is.

Transactive memory is similar to distributed cognition in that your accessible knowledge doesn’t lie solely in your own head. Instead of the information being in a notebook, on the internet, or in some other object, the information lies (usually) in someone else’s head. This can be useful when you’re working on a team where everyone is managing a different aspect, or when you’re recalling good memories with friends and family, but it has distributed cognition’s drawbacks. What happens when you need to know what someone else knows and you can’t reach them?

Distributed cognition and transactive memory also turn information into a jigsaw puzzle – incomplete until all of the pieces are back together in one spot. While it may seem easier or convenient, it reduces the information’s effectiveness.

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