“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
– T. S. Eliot
For everything that’s gained by our ability to store and maintain more information than ever before, something is lost that has to do with texture, context and association. The science journalist Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,” said in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts that people once “invested in their memories, they cultivated them. They studiously furnished their minds. They remembered. Today, of course, we’ve got books and computers and smartphones to hold our memories for us. We’ve outsourced our memories to external devices. The result is that we no longer trust our memories. We see every small, forgotten thing as evidence that they’re failing us altogether.” As we store more and more of what makes us us outside of ourselves, he said, “we’ve forgotten how to remember.”
Losing data is not the same as forgetting. It happens all at once, not gradually or imperceptibly, so it feels less like an unburdening than like a mugging. Similarly, accumulating data does not feel the same as gaining knowledge, experience or understanding.
Foer said, “What makes things memorable is that they are meaningful, significant, colorful.” Data is weightless and characterless and takes up very little space. The more of it we save, the more we lose the ability to differentiate it, to assign significance and meaning.