The hidden cost of writing

I once had a colleague who insisted on not taking notes during meetings. This was her means to train her memory – if she wrote everything down, she would stop remembering as well.

I thought of this behaviour as odd. Why would somebody choose to hold all that information in their head? I now realize that she may have been onto something.

From the beginning of history, the world was filled with storytellers who had committed entire epic poems to memories. These minstrels would wander from town to town, telling stories of local heroes, legends of famous kings and religious sagas. The 20th century finally erased much of this long-standing human tradition. The vast majority of us have hardly attended such a performance, whereas the same would not have been true of our great-grandparents.

The great Indian folklorist, Komal Kothari, wanted to preserve this dying tradition. He had the idea of sending one storyteller he knew, a singer named Lakha from the Langa caste, to adult education classes. His idea was that if Lakha learnt how to read and write, he could document the many songs he had learnt more easily. However, a curious thing happened once Lakha turned literate – he lost the ability to sing from memory. While his fellow singers from the Langa community were able to remember hundreds of songs, Lakha now needed to consult his diary while singing.

The ability to write atrophies our ability to remember stories, since our minds have now found a more convenient way.

Writing is an invaluable skill to cultivate. Nevertheless, the convenience it offers comes at a cost – of stripping us of our ability to narrate from memory. In the modern world, that cost may be well worth writing off, unless you are a bard or a minstrel.

However, I now ponder about the other conveniences we now have at our fingertips. What if the ready availability of answers to any question on the internet will deprive us of the ability to think for ourselves? What if cheap meals that can be ordered at the click of a button keep us from ever learning how to cook?

In other words, what is the cost we pay when we absorb a convenience into our lives? Is that convenience worth the cost?

Inspiration: Nine Lives

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