Should You Replace Technology with Memorization?

Last Updated Nov 25, 2009 10:22 AM EST

Steven DeMaio says he doesn't need a calendar or to-do list. He's thrown away his address book as well. Instead, he has trained his memory to afford instant recall of important numbers, email addresses, names and dates.
"I don't use the contacts feature on my cell phone, or the calendar on Gmail, or the personal organizer on any handheld device," DeMaio, a teacher, writes on his blog. "And, no, I don't rely instead on an old-style paper planner or address book. Not even a desk blotter, retro as that would be. I memorize things, plain and simple -- as if Gutenberg never lived, as if the Egyptians never started using papyrus."
What drives this motivation to memorize? Technology is a crutch that turns his mind to mush, he says. Also, we as a species have a moral imperative to use the Big Tool in our craniums that separates us from other species.
"There's something intoxicating about a room full of flesh-and-blood creatures who can call up -- without an electronic aid -- any of thousands of details, no matter how mundane, at a second's notice in order to organize and plan their activities. Indeed, the more mundane the details are, the more delightfully freakish and exhilarating it is to recall them."
I'll agree it's freakish, all right. Sorry, Steven, but I believe technology is a great invention to free up our minds for a higher purpose. The technology "crutch", if used consistently, allows you not to worry about upcoming dates and tasks. They come to you, electronically, when it is is time to deal with them. And that's a wonderful thing.

Not that exercising memory is a bad thing, quite the contrary. I'm sure "use it or lose it" applies to gray matter as much as it does to muscles. I just don't want to cram my limited BrainRAM with stuff like my kid's doctor's appointment next January 23 at 2:30.

But I suspect my "can't live without technology" view is just as polarizing as Steven's "technology is bad for the brain" opinion. Read DeMaio's engaging Harvard Business Publishing post, The Supreme Killer App: Your Memory, then come back here and tell us if you believe we are under-using our brains or over-using our thumbs.

(Apple Newton image by oskay, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.