Memory as a Wikipedia Page


I don’t know anyone’s phone number, address or email address anymore. I don’t remember appointments, my agenda is on my phone and I get an alert. I don’t remember any of my passwords, they’re stored either in the app or in my browser. If I loose my phone I’m screwed, but only temporarily because all that information is backed up in the cloud somewhere.

On the plus side there is an unlimited memory that I can access in the sense that there is nothing Google doesn’t know, the days of playing Google Whack are over.

We tend to think of memory as being a storage, our own biological repository of true things that really happened, our own database that we can Google to recall.

It turns out that human memory functions less like a database and more like Wikipedia. That is we can create overwrite and change what we recall, and – here’s the wiki bit – other people can distort our memories. In this TED talk Elizabeth Loftus talks about the ways our memories can be subtly altered by what people ask us and even what words they use.

As shown in the video this has implications in crime solving, eye witness accounts can be manipulated as people are primed by something as simple as replacing the word “hit” with “smashed” in a description of an accident.

But it also has implications for all of us, having a wikipedia page for a memory is how we become vulnerable to gaslighting,  an insidious form of manipulation that includes persistent denial of the truth, deliberate lying, and manipulating the environment to make the victim doubt their own memory.

The usual setting for gaslighting is within a relationship, and it has been connected with narcissistic or sociopathic personalities and with abuse.

But what if we can all, collectively fall victim to gaslighting?  This accusation has been hurled at various politicians, most recently at the new President of the US. Various news outlets have called his behaviour gaslighting, including Business Insider, The GuardianCNN, Teen Vogue, the Washington Post, NBC, and the earliest example I could find in the Telegraph. The antidote to this has been the rise and rise of fact checkers.

The good news is that we have a global database now, it’s called the internet and we can search for sources, explanations, and the person’s own words.

The other piece of good news is that because our memories are wiki pages we can consciously choose to re-write the memory. For many years I was vaguely claustrophobic, I would avoid small spaces and if I had to be in one I would get highly anxious, never to the level of a full panic attack but unpleasant. I thought it was due to one event where for a joke two guys picked me up and shut me into the boot/trunk of someone’s car. When they finally let me out I was crying, shaking, and furious.  I changed the “script” of that event and cast myself as a circus performer escaping, Houdini-style, from the car’s boot with feather headdress and a flourish.  Am I cured? Well I won’t be joining the Speleology Club any time soon but I’m not anxious in a lift/elevator any more.

Our memories record the good and the bad stuff, just like wikipedia; and just like wikipedia the can be edited. Pay attention, be aware of the editing.

If you think you’re being “nudged” to change your view check the facts. If you think you need a record of something photograph it. Use the tools to help you keep a database, your brain won’t.

When I travel around the Netherlands by train I leave my bike at central station, amongst the 4,000 other bikes and I don’t always remember where I parked it. I’ve taken to photographing the view from where the bike is parked. My memory on bike location is definitely a wiki page, and I seem to randomly recall previous page versions.

Image: Memories  |  Stefanos Papachristou  |  CC BY-NC2.0

WolframAlpha: a new way to search

Google has become so omnipresent as a search engine that we now use google as a verb in lieu of search.

But there’s a new kid on the block; Wolfram Alfa, well I say “new kid” it might be the most adult and grown up search engine we’ve ever seen.

3-D structure of ethanol
3-D structure of ethanol

My first degree was in science so the first thing I did was geek out on chemical formulae and structure diagrams. Entering a the chemical formula for ethanol gives a fact sheet of molecular weight, 3D structure, solubility, melting points, flash points and so on. The fact sheet can be downloaded, so this could be great for study notes.

I got a little geekier and tried “aldehyde dehydrogenase” as a search term. Nothing. So the database is not yet complete.

I tried a couple of technical terms from the world of computing I tried “IP” that was freaky, I got a definition plus details of my own IP address. I tried “http” nothing, I tried “meta data” and I got a reference to a river in Colombia.

I tried it on a few more cultural elements, it found with last years nobel prize winners (but not with only “nobel winners” as a search term), but couldn’t cope with Oscar winners.

Entering a person’s name give very basic data; name place and date of birth. But it gives exactly the same level of information for Paul Erdos, Rosalind Franklin and Pamela Anderson. You would discover that they were a mathmetician a chemist and an actrice respectively.

In contrast from Wikipedia you can learn that Erdos was incredibily prolific and collaborated with so many people on various mathmatical problems that there exists an “Erdos number” which like the more famous “6 degrees of separation” indicates how close you are as a mathematician to Erdos. You would learn from Wikipedia that it was Rosalind Franklin‘s x-ray crystallography data used by Watson and Crick to develop their model of DNA.

an example of the sources used by WolframAlpha

Most search engines work by spidering the web and analysing the link structure and and the user behaviour to deliver a best guess at the content you’re looking for.

WolframAlpha works differently; they go back to primary searches and presumably catorigorise this data directly to present you with a comprehensive result.

You can see which sources were used in compiling your result by clicking on “source information” at the bottom of your results page. The sources are clickable, but seem to take you to the home page not a page chosen on relevance so you’d still have some search to do.

This means it might have a different level of authority to the social media sites/searches which makes it interesting especially for people who need the right answer not the favourite answer. However it’s already getting some flack for being too “intelligent”, webomatica complained “I don’t like WolframAlpha because it makes me feel stupid” I suspect others will have the same sort of reaction and that this might become a “niche” search engine for experts in various science fields. And that might still be a good thing.

At this time it seems very much focused on the physical sciences, and although they say they’re aiming at “Everyone! Its goal is to bring expert-level knowledge to everybody.” That’s a grand ambition, however in my experience it’s really only experts who are interested in “expert-level” knowledge.

If I were studying a subject covered by WolframAlpha I’m sure I’d use it, the basic information is there, the downloadable pdf is great, and the reference list under the source information would be a great jump off point for futher research.

It remains to be seen just how mainstream this will become.