Hey Jason — Thank you for taking the time to engage so thoughtfully with the piece. I really appreciate it. And I agree with the main points you’re advancing here, especially the one about how valuable it can be to free up our memory load. Being able to apply our minds to problems of greater and greater sophistication is surely one of the benefits of technological advances. If anything, this has augmented our cognitive capacity. I tried to nod to this in the article, but I probably could have made my view clearer.
You’re also right that there isn’t anything special about technology when it comes to diminishments in formative memory. There could be other culprits. I single out technology simply because it has such prominence in everyday life, and the real benefits that we reap in offloading certain things from our memory may encourage us to offload a bit too much. For example, someone I know recently asked me (partly in jest, partly not): “Why should we try to remember anything when we have Google?”
But I should clarify: the diminishment wouldn’t come by distraction so much as externalization. What I mean by externalization, most basically, is a reliance on storing things elsewhere than our minds. What I’m interested in isn’t simply the value we might find in being able to recall certain facts from memory. Rather, it’s about making certain things core to who we are by virtue of internalizing them.
An example might be with studying ethics. Suppose one reads a classic work like Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. In reading this book, memory can happen on a sliding scale of intensity (and I’ll leave tech out of this entirely):
(a) Least intensely, one highlights some passages, recalls some basic details of what Kant has to say, but then puts the book on the shelf.
(b) More intensely, one memorizes the core of his argument about why we should never treat people as a means to our ends but rather as ends in themselves.
(c) Most intensely, the argument actually influences how we see and treat other people.
Formative memory, I’m suggesting, is all about getting to (c). It isn’t important to get that far with a lot of things. But for certain things, it is. And we likely won’t get that far if we don’t even get to (b).