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Forget About It (by Paul W. Smith)

Selective memory is well known. For example, I am quite clear on all the mistakes that others around me have made, but I have difficulty recalling my own screw-ups. I’m sure there are smart people who can explain the reasons for this.

My own increasing tendency to forget stuff in general is of more immediate concern. It’s one thing when my doctor starts most of his sentences with “At your age….”, but it’s quite another when a skill I have worked to develop for most of my life deserts me. Two score and 15 years ago, I memorized all 272 words of Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address with minimal effort. I still remember most of it. It took me a long time to reach the point where this and numerous other similar exercises shall not have been in vain.

Kids memorize stuff like this in school for good reasons. Not only does it help train your brain, but it can make some useful facts readily available. Granted as an engineer I haven’t had much use for Abe’s speech, but the ability to remember basic equations has served me well many times. If I am ever stranded on a remote island, I’ll have no trouble pulling up the basic beam bending equations in my head. For future generations that could soon be a distant memory.

These days the Blogosphere posts incessantly of the skills that will be necessary to thrive in our new digital society. Complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity are high on the list, although it’s hard to imagine how that would have been any different in generations past. People skills and emotional intelligence were also deemed important, but that’s hardly revolutionary either. What’s noteworthy is not so much the skills we need to develop, but those that may no longer be deemed important.

A 2018 Science Magazine survey of young scientists concluded that schools should spend less time asking students to memorize things and use that time instead to guide them in more creative pursuits. If all the known facts in the world are available on the smartphone in your pocket, what’s the point of memorizing anything? Granted that some things may be important, but perhaps we need to be more selective.

This intentional selective forgetting is not new. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, reading and writing weren’t nearly as important as ploughing and harvesting skills when it came to survival. I’m sure it’s been quite awhile since ploughing showed up on a resume.

How many of us could still navigate using only a paper map, and at what point can we comfortably forget how to drive a car? It’s even possible that auto-correct will someday obsolete dictionaries, although I’m not optimistic about that one. Our world is rapidly becoming a shared memory environment, where someone or something other than us retains knowledge. For those parts of the Gettysburg address that I’ve become a bit unsure of, Google is ready and able to help.

Granted there is significant risk in this group memory idea – the global memory economy will always be subject to shifting geopolitical winds, and the loss of collective knowledge in food, medicine or energy could potentially threaten our existence.

I have seen firsthand how electronic textbooks, their static illustrations enhanced by video examples, can put more powerful learning tools in the hands of students. The challenge is to keep our brains adapting and evolving without using the new tools as a crutch and falling behind in the essential mental skills.

Many of the equations and derivations I wallowed in during my graduate study are stored in a set of files on my laptop. I have indexed them such that the computer can take me almost instantly to any piece of technical information that I encountered during my student years. All those basic beam equations are there, alongside a complete derivation of all coefficients of the linear elasticity tensor.

Now if I could only remember the password.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40

years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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