What's In Our Minds?

If all data stored outside our minds were to vanish suddenly. What would become of us?

As fictional as this may seem, this event is not wholly impossible and the consequences are harsher then you may imagine – but this is the subject of the next article. In this one I want to explore the relationship between all the information* stored in our minds and all the information stored outside of them. To do so, I will look at several types of data and consider means of comparing the two.

*In computer science, knowledge and information are quite different entities, but since their exact definition is not important in the context of this article, I will use them interchangeably.

In this article I will make an effort to define certain questions in a way that the discussion about their answers becomes scientific and not a matter of opinion. However, I will do little in the way of providing the answers. I would be more than happy to receive comments and guesses, whether educated or not, as to what the answers may be.

Main question:

So – here’s an interesting question:  how much knowledge is stored in the minds of all humans at a given point it time? What can be done with it? How does it compare to all the information outside our heads?

Literature – what percent of current literature is contained in the minds of man? If all records, digital and analog were to miraculously disappear, given pen and paper – how much can we salvage? To seriously consider this, we need to define literature first. Giving a satisfactory definition is hard – what we consider ‘literature’ changes with time and place and is notoriously elusive. However, to be able to discuss the issue of lost information I will give a definition befitting the aims of this article.

I will define literature as all written imaginary works: fiction and non-fiction – prose and poetry. We do not count newspapers, magazines, blogs or articles of any kind nor do we consider dictionaries, encyclopedias, specification document, guides and school books (unless you happen to study literature of course).

So, how much does the collective memory hold?

Well, the bible can surely be re-written since at least in some languages there are people who know it verbatim – as I’m sure is the case with other religious texts. This is also true for many poems, sonnets and ballads.

But for example – what about the collective works of Shakespeare? Can we assume that there exists an actor currently acting out each part in each play, so that all of them can be rewritten? What about Shakespeare’s sonnets? Are there people who collectively remember all 154 of them? And what about the works of Tolkien? Are there ardent fans who remember whole books by heart?

What is certain, is that whatever the percentage is, it is in rapid decline. If we take the United States as a yard-stick, we find that the number of books published there has more than tripled from 2000 to 2010, whereas the population has grown less than 10%. Assuming human capacity for remembering books is similar to what it was a decade ago, a far smaller percentage of books are memorized today than were before.

Except maybe for children’s books. Oh – there are many more children’s books published today than in previous years, but they are relatively short and tend to be repeated many times on account of toddlers’ demands. This  assures that at least the parents know them by heart, but to be fair, probably the best collective memory of children’s books are simply in the minds of children.

Music – what percent of all recordings available can be reproduced, tone by tone, note by note? Let’s only talk about what is referred to as ‘classical’ music. What percentage of classical music could we reproduce if all the notes were gone? Can we find today musicians to play each part for each instrument in all of Mozart’s symphonies? What about all of Mozart’s piano concertos? What about the complete works of Bach – more than 1000 pieces? Can I assume that at least some of Bach’s works will be lost forever is all the notes disappear?

Science: how much of current scientific knowledge is embedded in the minds of men (and women) at present? Some experiments produce huge quantities of data, which are invariably lost when all data goes away, but what about the underlying theorems and rules? How much of modern math will be lost? Which parts will be hurt the most? Are there areas of research which were once explored, the knowledge written down somewhere and have been abandoned since? Are there basic proofs of mathematical theorems that no one knows how to repeat? Are there basic concepts in physics which no one alive truly understands – the last person to understand them and write them down – now dead?

So, though I can’t say exactly how much, but left on our own without all available data stored either on paper or digital (I suppose almost all information found on paper is digitalized these days), it’s clear that a major part of known literature and music will not be recoverable. That would be a shame so let’s hope that does not happen, and not only for the sake of art; In the next article, I will dwell a little more on what may happen if all digital data were to disappear – not as unlikely an occurrence as one might think at first and truly catastophic.

But back to our current discussion: all data stored outside our heads is lost – what can be retrieved?

Technology:  Here we need to be a bit more careful in our assessment of the situation. First we need to define technology, which akin to defining literature, is a futile attempt. However, to give an index of how much technology was lost, some definition must be made. Let us define technology, just for the sake of this article as all objects which:

Technological element definition:

  1. Are man-made
  2. A Wikipedia page exists for the archetype (like ‘toaster’ for the Black and Decker T2569B or ‘jet fighter’ for the F-15)
  3. Have a specifications sheet that allows someone (even theoretically) to reproduce it
  4. Can be (even theoretically) mass produced.

The international space station for example, can be mass produced (though no one in their right mind would suggest this), is man-made and has a (quite lengthy I would assume) specifications document and so qualifies as a technological object. A painting by Monet is man-made and may be reproduced, but does not (as far as I know) have a specifications document allowing anyone out there to make a copy and so does not count. A can of tomato soup can be mass produced and has a specification sheet (the recipe) and so counts as a technological object. Technological items will therefore include all hammers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammer) as well as all toasters, jet fighters, wine glasses and paper clips of all kinds. Note that though there is a Wikipedia page for toaster – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toaster, there are possibly many thousands of different toasters out there. We count each one as a different kind for the sake of our index and we will ask how many of them can be brought back to life – conjured from memory alone. If you look closely you will notice that all books, music recordings, mass produced foods and scientific articles are also types of technological objects according to the above definition. Can you say why? Can you find objects that comply with the above definition but are not even remotely related to technology (checking the robustness of my definition)?

To be able to treat the original question rigorously, some problems need to be addressed – for example, we can restore part of the information, even if it is not stored in our heads. Even if all documentation, digital or otherwise were to evaporate, we could still figure out how a machine works and how to build it by reverse engineering – tearing it apart and connecting it back together. Even microchips, tiny logical circuits etched in silicone can be reverse engineered with the proper tools.

So let’s consider the following thought experiment:

  1. Everything man-made has evaporated.
  2. We are left naked as the day we were born and Earth has been restored to its state around 10M years ago before humans even started tool-making.
  3. We do not need to worry about warming ourselves or feeding; this is miraculously taken care of. We do not need to worry about safety; everyone is exceedingly calm and amicable.
  4. We have at our disposal a magic fabrication machine called Ernie. Ernie is willing to fabricate an object X we ask for, on two terms:
    1. We can specify exactly how to make it (I’ll explain what “exactly” means)
    2. All the parts from which X is made were already made before or are available on Earth without any processing.
  5. We are granted instant collaboration, that is, all humans are gathered around the same fire (assuming we were able to light one) and can interact in perfect harmony in order to provide the missing information to Ernie.

Given this starting position – can humanity fabricate a metal hammer using Ernie? The intuitive answer would be – but of course! So let’s take a look at the fabrication process – it should look something like this:

Ernie, please fabricate iron – we would need to tell where iron ore can be obtained (Ernie will fetch it – no need to travel there, we’re not concerned with logistical difficulties). If it cannot be mined by hand we would need to specify how to fabricate the mining tools (one of which may well be a stone hammer).

In order to smolder the iron we need to first fabricate a furnace, one capable of reaching temperatures of around 1000C. For this we need fuel such as coal or oil, which too need to be obtained and possibly processed. Not that simple. Does the collective memory of mankind hold this information at present?

And even this thought experiment will not represent what is stored in our minds, because given enough time, people will start experimenting. Looking back at the furnace design, someone might only partly remember how to build a furnace capable of smoldering iron – he will ask Ernie to make that furnace and then realize that it does not work. However, after trying to get the furnace to work, this person realizes what is missing and can now ask Ernie to fabricate a new furnace, like the working furnace that existed once. This does not mean that the information on building such a furnace was stored in human memory, since some trial and error – a discovery process was needed to create it.

So to further refine the experiment, let’s assume we can create a snapshot of all the knowledge in a human brain and extract it at will, as a human would do. However, no further processing of the data is possible and so no new conclusions can be reached while interacting with Ernie.

Now that the experiment is well defined – what part of present technology can we recreate? Can we build an iron hammer? Can we build a brick home? What about a steam engine? Even more intriguing – can we recreate any of the electronic devices currently available?

In my unfounded opinion, our dependence on data stored outside our heads, be it in digital form or in the form of already working devices is so complete, that we will not be able to recreate any but the most basic devices – maybe a simple electric engine.

But that’s just me – what do you think?

Technological Advancement Index:

Let’s call the final state humanity is able to achieve with Ernie as ES and the number of unique technological items (according to the definition of a technological object above) achieved in that state as |ES|. Let us term our current state as CS and number of current technological objects as |CS|.

I would like to propose an index for advancement, the ratio between all technologies available in ES divided by all technologies available today:


What would be our best estimate for this index? Is it around 1% or around 10e-7%? Remember that every different type of contraption adhering to the rules stated above counts as a technological object – all types of toasters and jet fighters, but also all types of screws, nails, nuts and bolts, synthetic chemical compounds, light-bulbs, capacitors, resistors and contraptions for feeding pet hedgehogs. How many of these are there? What would be your best guess? 10e7? 10e9? I claim that this ratio is a good marker to how dependent we are on current media stored outside our minds. The more industrious we become, the more we tend to store information outside of our brains and rely on it to maintain everything that is available in the modern world.