Oct 4, 2017

Memex for our cognitive limitations

Memory plays an important role in our everyday lives, but the brain's limitations in processing and poor accuracy of storing and retrieval information, makes it unreliable. In 1945 Vannevar Bush, an engineer, wrote an article titled As we may think in which he described how an electronic device, which he called memex, may be used to communicate with others, store, and retrieve information. Although he didn't call them as such, he was describing what we now know of as the Internet, the World Wide Web, and the personal computer. He was quite aware of our limitations and envisioned how we can surpass them. He wrote,

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.

We should recognize that evolution has given us the brain not as a perfect tool, but a tool equipped with advantages and limitations. If we learn to use it well we can learn to create and use tools to improve our daily living, as Vannevar Bush envisioned. Schools may be the place where we can learn how to effectively and efficiently use tools. Unfortunately, there are many educational doctrines and assessments under the notion that the brain thinks perfectly well and can flawlessly store, process, and retrieve information. But this is a faulty model which may give rise to a number of illusions. Not only is the brain terrible at signal to noise information processing, but it also does a poor job at encoding, storing, and retrieving information. We should also factor in that a scientific community recognizes that knowledge is fallible, under constant revision, and forever increasing in content.

Misconceptions about how the brain and man-made tools work may create illusions, delay human progress, and threaten our well-being. Cognitive scientist Christopher Chabris and author of The Invisible Gorilla has studied cognitive illusions and describes the illusion of confidence in this video.

There is a lot of debate about how the brain works, but what's for sure is that it's not a perfect tool as some think it is. We have known about our limitations for quite some time and developed a system of improvement, it's called the scientific method. We have also learned to create and use tools that help us correct our cognitive limitations. We should acknowledge our limitations and learn how to better use our tools, instead of implicitly glorifying our illusions. Wouldn't an educational system that doesn't recognize and teach these be labeled as a bad education?

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan