From Stones to Computers: The Evolution of Information Management

Evaluating the impact of technology on recording and managing information

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Culture rather than biology is now the greatest influence on brain development. In fact, our culture is inseparable from technology and has been so since the development of the microchip, which is the heart of modern technology. Dr. Restak explains the impact that these developments have had on our lives.

Man on computer, looking at multiple monitors
Electronic devices serve as extensions for our brain power, allowing us to index and cross reference materials to produce future materials and to handle vast computations and analysis. Photo By Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

Information Management History

In our current state of information management, we use portable computers to extend the brain’s power. Software programs enhance our speed of response, working memory, imaging ability, reasoning, and ability to calculate as well as make abstractions. 

Think of technological aids as extensions of the brain. Our species, if you go back in history, started with sharpened stones in prehistory and evolved to handwritten scrolls, then to the printing press, pencils and pens, typewriters, and finally computer keyboards. Each aid offered an advance in information management.

The history of information management illustrates an evolution of possible ways to remember something. Back in history, people heard something, sustained it in their short-term memory, and then moved it to long-term memory. 

That’s how we have the Homeric epics. Later we started writing things down and dictating notes about them, and still later came the typewriter followed by the laptop. 

All these methods are what we can think of as one-stop sources for writing and editing. Another way of thinking about it is all are extensions of the brain.

Evaluating Written Journals

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each, starting with written journals. It’s amazing how many people I’ve known that have kept journals. 

“I met a woman of 89 years of age who had kept journals since she was eight-years-old,” Dr. Restak said. “She filled two whole bookshelves.” 

Written journals are personal, intimate, and familiar. We actually see the brain’s production in the form of our own handwriting, but we have limited access to written journals over time. 

This woman couldn’t find a particular journal that went back 20 or 30 years, understandably. Also, as we change, our handwriting is sometimes difficult to read. 

Written documents are difficult to index as well. You try to find something you know you wrote a year or two ago, and you can’t find the correct journal. Synthesis and integration are difficult because you can’t link and index.

Computer Journal Advantages

Compare that to computer journals. With multi-gigabyte drives, you can cross-correlate today’s entry with everything you have ever written or in fact ever will write. This is a great improvement over our dependency on books, which aren’t always available when we want them. 

“Now, I have all of my books on my laptop,” Dr. Restak said. “Thoughts and images of the past influence what I’m writing now. It’s really a form of future memory … things in the past influence what you’re thinking now, and of course, that will influence what you’re thinking in the future.”

In the book Total Recall, Gordon Bell, who is the principal researcher at Microsoft Research, tells of the power unleashed by combining digital recording, digital storage, and digital search. He writes, “With the speed of modern computers, it has become possible to index every word and phrase in every document and to search all of them in an instant. Indexing is the mechanism by which associative memory becomes possible.” 

As mentioned, you don’t have any indexing when you’re writing something in a handwritten journal. In electronic journals, by contrast, you can correlate entries via keywords. 

Keyword searches turn up surprising connections many times; that’s the advantage of surfing as we call it—you come up with connections that you never really thought of. We can research using cross references via hyperlinks and hypertext. It’s also easy to modify and to add something—you can’t do that to a journal that was written 10 years ago and there’s no space left.

Disadvantages of Technology

Automated research also has some disadvantages. A research program isn’t able to notice correlations and connections that come naturally to you. Nonetheless, the computer has brought about dramatic changes in the way we think—namely subjective experience.

We can link past, present, and future to create personal synthesis and integration. We can revisit earlier thoughts and productions; the you of right now can revisit the you of an earlier time. You can think of it as a form of experiential time travel.

The computer can strongly influence the brain, even changing its structure and functioning. A mobile electronic device frees us from desks and offices, allowing us to be creative and productive anywhere, even on vacation. Therefore, for better or worse, technology has undeniably influenced our brain development and our approach to information management.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.