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Memory, Design Both Crucial

November 15, 2002

I just learned the story of the novel “One hundred years of solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A small village contracts a plague that causes everyone to lose their memories in various ways.

Villagers try labeling things, but soon one of them undertakes to create a memory machine. He gets fourteen thousand entries done before the plague is cured and his memory is restored.

This is the right order of magnitude, I thought; like the Chinese “world of ten thousand things.”

Not only does our modern world have more than ten thousand things but many makes and models of the same thing. We have a lot to choose from and a lot to remember.

A fascinating book called “The psychology of everyday things,” by Donald Norman, is full of examples of man’s successful and unsuccessful relationships with his material world. Memory is crucial, but so is design.

He has a nice discussion of doors. How many times have you pulled on a door you should have pushed? Despite the large letters saying “Push,” you are not at fault. If something as simple as a door handle needs printed instructions, it is not well-designed.

Take the example of stove controls. Most control knobs are lined up in a row. But the four burners are in a rectangle. There is no natural mapping of one to the other, and so a map or written instructions (e.g. “back left”) must be provided.

This book dissects our experience of things. The material world has constraints that limit our actions.

There are physical constraints (a small lever for a door handle invites turning and pulling; keys typically have a top and bottom edge — although with a well-designed key, orientation wouldn’t matter).

Other constraints include semantic, cultural, and logical constraints. These limit our choices and therefore the amount of knowledge we have to remember — knowledge “in the world” versus “in the head.”

There are many people who don’t “get” the mapping between the keyboard, mous e, computer, and the monitor. They seem to conquer the machine through brute force of memory with trial and error.

Even a well-honed memory can be defeated. The author discusses human errors and the way they come about.

Consider the “capture error,” in which an oft-repeated action leaps in for the one you intended. For example, counting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King.”

There’s the “loss of activation” error wherein one forgets one’s goal. You find yourself in the kitchen but can’t recall why you came in. I lose my activation a lot. I retrace my steps and then … aha!

How many times have you come to the library but can’t remember a single book you wanted to read?

Fortunately, at the library, we can help. You don’t have to go back outside to your car, then back to your office, trying to remember the book you had in mind.

The library catalog is a nice aid to memory, as well as to discovery. In fact, the entire library is.

The human memory has two modes: field and observer. In “field” memories, you “see” again as if through your own eyes. In “observer” memories, you likely see yourself in the scene you conjure up.

A library contains field and observer memories for our civilization. It’s a nice analogy for our collective memory.

Now, I must remember to read “One hundred years of solitude.” Where’s the sticky notes?


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