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The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Memory and Technology

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on May 10, 2013 - 7:51am

Last time, I said I’d talk about memory, but I just went back and checked the post to be sure. Our memories are dark, murky backwaters where events shift, timelines change, and we’re never really on stable ground. The more I read about how untrustworthy our memories are, the more I feel like I’m sliding into a more tedious, daily-life version of the movie Memento (did I do the dishes? Did I send that email? Not exactly murder and mayhem, thankfully.) 

It’s not a bad place to approach technological and training issues from. I have spoken to people weeks and months after a training session only to have them swear that I did not tell them about a particular button or functionality. I know that I did. It’s on my outline. It’s on my notes. I always cover it. But maybe I missed it that time. Maybe I’m substituting memories from another training session when I cast back to the one in question. Thinking of memory as spongey and tricky helps me address the matter at hand - here’s what that button does – rather than get caught up in what did or did not happen at a long-ago training session.

The longer we live with a technology, the more our memories of it can have an impact on how we use it. When we first start using a new tool, we simply accept what’s there, but as we use it longer (and especially as various companies start to copy or carry over interfaces), our memories of what lives where and how things work start both helping and hindering us. If you have a smartphone, think of your first weeks and months with it. You likely frequently wondered if there was a setting/button/option for the thing you wanted, but once you’ve lived with your phone for a while, your use becomes automatic and occasionally, when you can’t quite find something, you’re sure the button used to be someplace else.

Everyone who works with tech has had the experience of solving a really frustrating problem and then committing that solution to memory; making you look like a genius the next time the issue comes up. We’ve all had the opposite experience as well: being convinced of a setting or option that simply doesn’t exist or exists someplace completely different than the place we’re looking. When you’re casting about, trying to find a checkbox or radio button that you’re sure is there somewhere, it can feel like you’re losing credibility as the resident techie, but I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.   

I sense a shift in how we handle that slippery sense of “there was a button that did this…” Anyone who has been through a few ILS migrations jokes about not being quite sure which system had a particular feature, and I think the expectation that tech types have everything about a program memorized is changing. If “being good at technology” doesn’t mean having every last radio button and check box committed to memory, so much the better. The task of the techie becomes convincing those we help with their tech to use their memories to their advantage.

Recent news stories about sibling memory and how siblings will tell radically different versions of the same story, sometimes even appropriating each other’s versions touch on the importance of individual narratives when it comes to memory. Our memories, to some extent, define who we are, grounding us in the world. The narrative our colleagues and patrons tell themselves about their relationship with technology is important.

Perhaps you’ve witnessed someone, normally perfectly confident and competent, lapse into fear and self-doubt when faced with a new piece of software or an unfamiliar interface. “I’m bad at technology,” she tells you. (And I’ll note as an aside here that  women tend to blame themselves when technology doesn’t work for them, while men tend to blame a glitch or the machinery.) Maybe you hear, “Every time I try to use the computer, I have a problem.” You might be thinking, “Really? EVERY time?” and you’re right to be skeptical. Not every time, but the bad memories have obliterated the good.

There is the opportunity for library techies to boost the confidence of their less-techie colleagues. Providing happy memories of ease with technology is a good place to start, but perhaps we can do one better? Keeping an informal success log for our least confident users or suggesting that they keep their own tally of wins and reminding them of their technological competence might help overwrite their “I’m bad with computers” narrative. Maybe it’s not enough to be happily available to help. Perhaps a longer-term outlook requires us to remind those seeking our help of past achievements and skills.

Techies, is that asking too much? Is it the proverbial teaching people to fish or is it providing technology therapy?