How Many Phone Numbers Do You Know by Heart?

Thanks to the Internet, we now have information at our fingertips that previously had to be stored in our heads. But what is the price?

Here’s a test for you: What’s the name of the auxiliary olfactory organ that dogs have? Who were the two signatories to the first banknotes issued by the State of Israel? What is the Rosetta stone? How many phone numbers do you remember by heart?

We examined the last question by means of an unscientific survey among dozens of acquaintances, friends and family members. The results indicated that if you remember over 20 phone numbers, you’re almost certainly over 40. Indeed, it can be argued that most of the people who still remember phone numbers have also lived in earlier eras. The only person who said she remembers hundreds of phone numbers is 83; in third and fourth place were people aged 59 and 87, respectively. Others said they remember the numbers from before the invention of cell phones. Some people who insisted they didn’t know more than a few phone numbers recalled numbers from the past during the course of the conversation. Among the young people, there are also exceptions: Producers of news programs, for example, remember far more phone numbers than there are years in their lifetime.

The younger a person is, the less space phone numbers take up in his head. The important question is what we do with the space that has become available. The question becomes more interesting when it’s clear that it’s not only phone numbers that have evacuated the human brain. Almost all the information we previously had to ‏(or wanted to‏) remember has become superfluous.

What value is a familiarity with street names and the way to reach them, when there are navigational programs? Is there still any need to learn chapters from the Bible, Shakespeare or the multiplication table by heart, when at any given moment you have at your disposal digital databases that are immeasurably faster and more efficient than the brain? What is the point of learning trivia or items of general knowledge if, at about any time, all the information can be pulled from the nearest screen? And is there still the need to learn spelling and foreign languages if Microsoft Word corrects mistakes and Google translates the entire text?

The digital revolution means far more than just evacuation of memory resources in the brain. I, for example, have never succeeded in learning to play a musical instrument. So last week, for the sake of this article, I decided to skip the boring stage of learning notes and chords, and plunged straight into composition.

I typed “composition software” into Google and downloaded the first program on the list ‏(36.7 megabytes‏). Two minutes later, I opened a file under the name “first work.” I chose three instruments ‏(electric guitar, bass guitar and drums, of course‏) and seven minutes later I finished composing my work, which will never be heard by anyone. It may not be art, but it’s additional proof that knowledge and skill which, until recently, were limited to a small elite who devoted their lives to them, have become the property of those elements in humanity who own a computer and have a connection to the Internet.

In his book “A Brief History of Mankind” ‏(in Hebrew‏), Dr. Yuval Noah Harari describes the ancestors of contemporary mankind − the hunter-gatherers − as multidisciplinary experts; few of the more modern human beings that succeeded them have the same amount of knowledge.

“The world of knowledge of the hunter-gatherer was broader, more varied and more profound than the world of knowledge of most of the human beings who came later,” writes Harari. “Of course, the human collective today knows far more than the ancient group of gatherers, but on the individual level, the gatherers were the most skilled and educated people in history. An average hunter-gatherer knew more than enough to receive several doctorates in our times: in botany, zoology, ethnology ‏(the study of animals‏), geology, ecology, geography and perhaps even medicine and engineering.”

Digital dwarfing

Since human beings learned to write − at first, in order to manage the tax system of the early kingdoms, and later to keep a written record of knowledge − they have been able, for the first time, to accumulate knowledge that had been previously acquired and preserved orally for generations. Historian Prof. Benjamin Z.
Kedar, of Hebrew University, compares the revolution we are undergoing today to that great revolution, explaining: “It was writing that led to the situation where there was no longer any need to learn the Song of Gilgamesh by heart, or the laws of Iceland, and to recite them in front of an audience. The texts were written down and became accessible to anyone who knew how to read. But the computer immeasurably multiplies our ability to free ourselves from dependence on memory.”

Everyone agrees that the writing revolution is dwarfed by the digital revolution. “It can be compared to the development of language in human beings,” says Prof. Naftali Tishby, head of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation at the Hebrew University. “Language is limited, because you can transmit information through talking only directly from one person to another, and to more people only through writing and the media. The invention of writing made it possible to transmit information from one generation to the next. But the present revolution releases us almost completely from the limitations of the human brain as a database. It makes it possible to transmit information not only from one generation to the next, but also among people in distant and varied places and times. What is developing here is a kind of associative and dynamic memory network including all of mankind. It’s hard to compare that to anything else.”

The experts, mainly in computers and brain research, drop some of their academic caution when it comes to describing the magnitude of the change.

“Why should I mind giving an answer? Neither of us will live to know [the real answer],” replies Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli, director of the Sagy Center for Internet Research at the University of Haifa, to the question of the extent and power of the current revolution. “There’s an optical illusion that the things close to us always look big, and we always exaggerate the size of the change. But although I fall into that trap, I think this revolution is unprecedented. It’s more important than the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and has unprecedented dimensions.

“When writing was invented,” he continues, “it was placed in the hands of a handful of wizards. Here it’s an iPhone for every worker. What only two generations ago clearly had to be remembered − like the number of the blonde who sat two rows in front of you − is no longer crucial because of this device. We’re talking about an entirely different world. A cognitive surplus has been created, and it can be used for pornography, gambling, games or for cracking open seeds. It can be used for great works of art or for more family togetherness. But the potential definitely exists.”

Prof. Idan Segev, a computer researcher who is also from the Center for Neural Computation at the Hebrew University, agrees: “Our brain is unique when it comes to the brains of all other animal species: It changes the world by means of new creations. Just as we invented the car and no longer have to use our legs to run, the brain invents a device and makes room for an ability that was once latent. You have extra brain resources, perhaps for emotions or for studying mathematics. I don’t know for certain what will happen, but I think this extra space may enable us to head in new directions.”

One of these directions could be the machine that Segev himself has been involved in building: an exciting scientific project called the “blue brain.” The project involves a group of scientists trying to build a computerized model of the human brain using a super-computer. This brain, Segev believes, can not only learn and invent − it can feel and love things, too.

What Segev is aiming for is what he calls the “singular point − the stage at which technology will develop to a level that will change everything we know about the world. The change will be so profound that anyone who lives before this point cannot predict or imagine how life will look after it. In the field of information, the change is expected to include a growing connection between man and the computer, and between man and the digital cloud − to the point where we won’t be able to determine when man ends and the machine begins.”

“Today, if you take away my smartphone and my computer I feel disabled,” says Tishby. “If, for only one day, you don’t have a computer, you’re incapable of doing a significant part of the things we do today. That means we’re already in symbiosis with these systems.

“The computer already knows more about me than I know about myself,” he continues. “The machine is already capable of creating reliable forecasts of what I plan to do, what I can know and what I really think. It can almost create a computerized simulation of myself. Therefore, in every sense of social communication, I will be able to continue to exist even after my death. In that way we may perhaps also stop attributing exaggerated significance to our physical survival: what’s important is that our ideas will continue to exist and we’ll continue to contribute and develop. We’ll be able to survive not only a transition in time, but also a transition in space. The moment it will become possible to transfer information to places that we barely know today − we’ll be there.”

Reason for living

“Information that now passes between the ears of a 10-year-old boy in the course of a week didn’t pass through my grandmother’s brain in her entire lifetime,” says well-known riddle creator Dan Chamizer. “It’s also impossible to go on thinking that what I know is part of what I’m worth. People are no longer attributing importance to knowledge or ignorance. Members of my generation may feel that we’re missing something; a 10-year-old doesn’t think so.

Twenty years ago, Yitzhak Shimoni was a knowledge guru. As the moderator of the television show “Makbilit Hamochot” ‏(an Israeli version of “Mastermind,” a quiz show known for its challenging questions‏), he was the person perhaps most identified with those who store a tremendous amount of information in their brain. Although now in his eighties, he is well aware of the revolution and has good command of the Internet. However, he doesn’t believe there’s any reason for us to change our previous attitude toward general knowledge.

“Without knowledge we lose the reason for living,” he says. “For what do you have to make room in your mind? I’m a great believer in people’s need to receive information that will teach them something. Anyone who doesn’t know what Sde Boker is, or where it is, doesn’t know about the connection with [David] Ben-Gurion. A child doesn’t have to be full of uninteresting information, but if you don’t use your head you’ll end up stupid.”

Moshe Angel was the program’s all-time champion and, in one famous episode, received an almost-perfect score. “The things I remember are the things that interest me, more or less,” says Angel now, at 73. “I remember, for example, that on one of the programs, they asked me who the two signatories on the first banknotes of the State of Israel were. I remembered that from childhood, because I used to look at banknotes. After all, they were the first banknotes of the state.

“I sometimes see an encyclopedia tossed on the sidewalk,” he adds. “That’s clear: Today there’s no need for encyclopedias. But it bothers me that people don’t know things, especially things about world culture. Let’s say you work in high tech − you’re a big genius with the Internet − but then you meet someone from England who talks about the Rosetta stone. If you don’t know what that is, and that it became a concept in English for a quick solution to a complex problem, then you’ll only answer, ‘Yes, yes.’ How does all the Internet help you?”

One of the exciting fields in this revolution is education, particularly from the standpoint of how, if at all, our school system should adapt to the information age. What point is there in having a teacher stand in front of his students, when the phone of one of his students contains far more information than all the teachers in the world have ever known?

“The previous approach was that there’s a body of knowledge with which a person should leave school for life, with the teacher serving as the channel that transmits the knowledge to the students,” says Prof. Anat Zohar, an education researcher and a former chair of the Pedagogical
Secretariat in the Education Ministry. “Today a teacher has other tasks. It’s important for the school to teach thinking skills, enable the student to ask the right question, to bring new information on a high level, to decide which information is reliable, to be critical, to integrate information from various sources.”

The problem of the school system, especially in Israel, is that sticking to matriculation exams which require memorization, and to other assessment exams − such as the Program for International Student Assessment and the local Meitzav test − distances students from the goal of learning how to navigate the sea of information. Zohar’s solution: a drastic reduction in the number of matriculation exams, and exams in general, and development of new methods of learning that will stress independent research projects along with group work and use of digital databases.

For his part, Chamizer seeks a solution to the problem of riddles, which continue to rely on free-association in which the human brain still has an advantage over the computer. “Is the word dayan referring to just any sort of judge, or to [the last name of the late army chief of staff] Moshe, or [the surname of journalist] Ilana? It’s an infinite world of associations. Using them, along with curiosity and competition, you can motivate the students,” Chamizer says.

“The problem isn’t to give an answer when you’re asked a question; the problem is what you ask yourself,” adds veteran journalist Yaron London. “If they ask you who Churchill was, you might know how to open Wikipedia and answer. But what are the questions that should be asked about Churchill? What’s his historical context? What did a person like Churchill do in history? These are questions for which the Internet won’t give you an answer if you don’t know how to ask. If you don’t know basic information about the shape of the world, about its chronology, you won’t know what to ask, either.”

Journalist Michael Dak, who succeeded Shimoni as the host of “Makbilit Hamochot,” agrees. He was recently walking his dog in the park, he says, and “the question came up as to whether the story about Lassie is true − whether a dog really can return home from tremendous distances. I remembered that dogs have sophisticated olfactory organs but I couldn’t remember what they’re called, and that really caused me mental torture. Everyone who tried to rescue me proved an important point: that you have to know what question to ask. The Internet does not eliminate education or intelligence, but it presents new questions. Even if memorization has become superfluous, the ability to be familiar with the material is still a subject for education.”

“You have to understand the multiplication table, not remember it,” Tishby says. “To understand what it means to multiply numbers. Understanding the principles is much more important. You have to understand the difference between memory and understanding. We’re still not exempt from the need to understand. Although remembering the sum of 7 times 8 still helps in life.”

Atrophied minds

Worldwide, there is a pessimistic view of the price that humanity is paying for the accessible and infinite knowledge on the Internet. One of those usually included among the leaders of the pessimistic camp is the renowned British scholar Baroness Susan Greenfield. She believes that almost the entire younger generation in the West suffers from acquired attention deficit disorder, which is caused by the overload of information and the rate at which it is fired off by digital screens. She believes that the brain loses its ability not only to store information but also to process and analyze, and is becoming atrophied.

Another prophet of doom is Nicholas Carr, who published an article in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making us Stupid?” that later became the book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr compares his experience as a heavy user of computers to the experience of HAL − the malfunctioning computer in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” − the moment the astronaut decided to switch it off. Only this time it is the computer that is switching off the man: “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going − so far as I can tell − but it’s changing.”

Carr says he is incapable of reading a book or concentrating on a long text. “Media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought ... Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr and others speak of the overall structure that impels us to skip restlessly from one site to another. “The faster we surf across the Web − the more links we click and pages we view − the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and feed us advertisements,” he says.

For one, Prof. Tishby refuses to get excited about the pessimists’ doomsday prophecies: “It’s true that today we don’t have time to read a book for three hours. But that’s also because, to a great extent, the same information can be obtained by other, better, means.”

Tishby deals with the flow of information between the brain and the world surrounding it, and describes two situations involving discourse conducted by that organ. One is internal discourse, like that which takes place while reading a book. “Then the brain dictates the pace, the world of images − it’s an interior creation of your own.” In the second situation, as when watching a film or television, the discourse is external; it doesn’t require the investment of many brain resources. The professor admits that technology has made us passive, but that this situation is changing rapidly, and the next stage of interactive digital systems will bring human beings and their brains back to the welcome activism of consuming culture.

It is instrumental to recall the incident in which Socrates tells Plato the story of Thamus, an Egyptian king who receives writing as a gift from the god Theuth, but turns it down. “In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, entirely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.”

By the way, the two signatories to Israel’s first banknotes are Eliezer Hoofien and Aaron Barth, then directors of Bank Leumi. The Rosetta stone is an engraved stone discovered in Egypt, which contains the same text in hieroglyphics and in Greek, and which led to the deciphering of ancient Egyptian writing. The olfactory organ of dogs is the vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson’s organ. This organ also exists in other mammals and reptiles. Even human beings have this organ, but, unlike our brains, as a result of the evolutionary process our own Jacobson’s atrophied millions of years ago. That took place from the moment we no longer needed it to gather information about the world.