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In my Scientific American column this month, I noted that there's not much need to memorize anything anymore. Ask a high-schooler today to rattle off the presidents, the periodic table or state capitals, and you'll get a blank stare—or a "Sure, let me grab my phone." Google is always available. And when's the last time you had to memorize a phone number?
But we'll never consult our phones for everything. Some things are so important we'll have to commit them to memory even if we reach the age of universal digital retrieval. Here are a few of the life categories where memory will always beat digital lookups:
The Frequency Factor: You access some details so often, memorization is required simply because the sheer quantity of lookups would make your life grind to a halt. Spelling, for example. Looking up every word—or directions to work each day or your school locker combination—would do a real number on your productivity.
The Cultural Factor: You can't function for long in society without some basic grounding in history and culture. Without knowing these references you won't have the context to comprehend current events—or even know what you're missing or what questions to ask. You won't understand advertisements, editorials or even news articles. And you won't get anybody's jokes. You'll be unemployable and undatable.
The Social Factor: You'll always have to know basic facts about your friends and family (and, of course, yourself). You should have instant access to your boss's name, your spouse's birthday and the names of your best friend's children. Fumbling to look them up electronically in a face-to-face situation would result in a lot of hurt feelings (and possibly unemployment).
The Security Factor: Clearly, our gadgets can go a long way toward eliminating the need to memorize passwords. Programs like Dashlane and LastPass autofill our login information on the Web sites we visit, and even fill in our credit card information when we buy something online. But you still have to unlock those programs each day by entering a master password—one you'll have to memorize. That's true of physical security, too: you can automate parts of it, but at the end of the line, there's a physical key or card or fob. You have to know where to find it and how to use it.
The Productivity Factor: Even if your daily work requires something you could easily look up, like molecular weights, stock symbols or commonly prescribed drugs, your work would bog down to a halt if you had to interrupt your flow every few minutes for a lookup. You need fluency in your own career facts to operate effectively.
- The Lookup Factor: Our gadgets may always be able to call up information on demand—but only if you know how and where to look for it. You still have to know how to use the tools of modern up-lookings: like Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Dictionary.com or—What's the other one? Oh, yeah—Google.