Ethereal Memory

by Charles Miller on November 28, 2003

On Monday morning, I came into work to discover two-thirds of the management team kneeling beside a dismantled Linux box which had until some time during the weekend served as the office router and firewall. The power-supply had given up the ghost, and until a new one (AT, not ATX!) had been procured, the office would have no Internet connection.

It's amazing how used one becomes to being always-connected. Unless I'm out in the middle of nowhere, I expect that when I sit down at a computer, it will have an Internet connection, and I will have access to that great global store of information. Without it, half my brain seems to freeze.

This morning, I was reading the Umberto Eco essay linked off Slashdot: Vegetal and mineral memory: The future of books (and being amused at the slashbots demanding that Eco be more "user-friendly"):

...Hermes, or Theut, the alleged inventor of writing, presented his invention to the Pharaoh Thamus, the Pharaoh praised such an unheard of technique supposed to allow human beings to remember what they would otherwise forget. But Thamus was not completely happy. "My skillful Theut," he said, "memory is a great gift that ought to be kept alive by continuous training. With your invention people will no longer be obliged to train their memory. They will remember things not because of an internal effort, but by mere virtue of an external device."

To some extent, the Internet is now an extension of my memory.

Modern computer hardware and operating systems support the concept of "Virtual Memory". Instead of programs having to speak directly to the RAM hardware to store data, the operating system assigns the program a big block of memory that doesn't really exist. The Operating System can then map between that virtual memory, and the real bits and bytes on the hardware. If the Operating System assigns more memory to programs than it has available, it can move some of the data out to "swap space" on the hard drive. So long as it remembers where it put the data, the OS can pull it back later when the program decides it needs it again.

I am increasingly finding that the Internet is my swap-space. I've stopped remembering "things", and started keeping a catalogue of references to things. If I find I need the information, I have enough recollection of where to find it that I can access the Internet and swap it back into main memory. Luckily, I have a really good associative memory for context, which helps me come up with the Google search I need to track down data I've otherwise swapped out.

Sure, this is a slower process than just keeping it all in core, but most of the time it's fast enough.

Thamus would have it that this is lazy, and that I need to train my memory more. I disagree. One of the biggest problems these days is information overload: there's just so much information out there that needs to be digested and kept on hand. Using the Internet as my swap-space, retaining only pointers to information instead of the information itself, leaves much more room in my head for important, immediate things.

Although I still can never quite remember where I put my apartment keys.

Previously: Google, Microsoft and Tall Poppies.

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