Depending on how you define it, portable data storage dates back to the dawn of human history. Back in the hunter-gatherer days, transmission of tribal history and lore, relied on oral transmission from teacher to student, with techniques developed to aid in listening, memorization, and recitation. One could regard a recipient of such knowledge as a portable storage device, albeit one subject to sudden catastrophic failure during time of war or following an unexpected encounter with a grizzly bear.
The invention of written language changed all that: figure 1 illustrates an early device (from the 9th century BCE) used to store written data.
Devices such as this, although portable (with the help of enough slaves or a team of oxen), had significant disadvantages compared to a modern SD card or USB flash drive. They were bulky with limited or no erase capability, had limited capacity, and write time far exceeded read time. On the plus side, though, they were durable, had excellent data retention capability, and are capable of being read to this day.
Figure 1: A Babylonian astronomical calendar: the stone tablet of Shamash the Sun-God. (source: British Museum)
Change was painful, even in the Ancient World: skeptics expressed fears that the new storage medium would lead to a decline in human abilities, as described by the Greek philosopher Plato almost 2,500 years ago.
In Plato’s dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates tells of the Egyptian god Theuth bragging to King Thamus that his invention of writing would improve people’s memories. King Thamus replied that this was nonsense: “For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are not part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant…since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” [i]
Figure 2: A 1TB USB flash drive, enough to store 310,000 photos, 1000 hours of video, or 40 copies of Wikipedia’s English-language text. (source: CDW)
Fast forward to the present day. Cloud-based hosting, SD cards, and USB flash drives are ushering in the age of practically free portable data storage. No need to remember anything, just look it up. Right?
Not so fast. With technology now well integrated into everyday life, researchers have been investigating its impact on the way that we learn and remember information. Research from IT security company Kaspersky Lab suggested that our reliance on technology and the internet is leading to “digital amnesia”: the inability to remember information that you’ve stored in a digital device.
The study questioned 1,000 consumers aged 16 and over about their use of technology, and found that 91% depended on the internet and digital devices as a tool for remembering. The same study found that 71% of respondents in another survey could not remember their children’s phone numbers and 57% could not remember their work phone number.
The results suggest that relying on digital devices to remember information is impairing our own memory systems. Perhaps King Thamus was onto something.
The increasing reliance on technology gives rise to another interesting question, prompted by seeing cashiers struggle to make the correct change when faced with, for example, $5.01 in payment for a $4.26 bill.
Will computers eventually lead to the loss of human ability to calculate, at least among the general population? After all, calculators are now permissible on a portion of the SAT Math test, something that would have been unheard of in years past.
In his short story, “The Feeling Of Power”, the great science fiction writer (and biochemistry Ph.D.) Isaac Asimov describes a future world utterly dependent on computers in which humans have forgotten the fundamentals of mathematics, including even the ability to count. Then a low-grade technician rediscovers the principles of pencil-and-paper arithmetic by reverse-engineering an archaic machine. Sadly, his innovation is soon put to use by the military establishment to develop new missiles - with economical human pilots instead of expensive computers.
Let’s hope that in this case at least, life never does imitate art.
Lynnette Reese holds a B.S.E.E from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Lynnette has worked at Mouser Electronics, Texas Instruments, Freescale (now NXP), and Cypress Semiconductor. Lynnette has three kids and occasionally runs benign experiments on them. She is currently saving for the kids’ college and eventual therapy once they find out that cauliflower isn’t a rare albino broccoli (and other white lies.)
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