Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Internet changes how we remember

Lots of recent research findings have serious implications for how we remember information when we have the Internet (i.e. Google) at our fingertips.  Having a regular and reliable source of external artifacts gives us a crutch, essentially using this “transactive memory”  by remembering where something is rather than what it is.   The results of all of these studies basically find that if we know a permanent record of something will be kept externally (in a computer we can access either locally or on the Internet, or even in an expert person that we trust), we use fewer resources to store it in our own personal memory (our heads).  We just remember where to find it.

Some authors conclude that this makes our thinking more superficial because we don’t think about content, just location.  Other authors conclude that this makes thinking deeper because we don’t think about details so we can think about implications. This is a really important difference.  If one is right, the Internet is a good thing for learning and education.  If the other is right, we could be starting a downward spiral to a society like the Eloi in the Time Machine.

How far can you take simulations?

Now here is a very interesting case.  There is one family of a 9/11 victim that is still suing the government.  This is the family of a passenger in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.  The dispute that I want to talk about today is that the family has put a very large monetary value on the terror that this person must have felt in the few minutes after he realized that the plane was going to be flown into the Towers.  The jury needs to decide how long he would have known this, how much fear that would have created, and how much compensation this is worth.  In order to do that, the family asked the judge to allow them to create a simulation of those last few minutes to show the jury and let them experience it personally.  The judge agreed. 

Can a simulation like this work?  In human factors research, we try to create ecologically valid scenarios to test user interfaces all the time.  Sometimes it is important to understand the users’ emotion, like frustration or hurriedness.  But this legal case takes it up a whole order of magnitude.  I am not sure if the typical juror could really watch a simulation and imagine what the passenger felt like, let alone put a dollar value on it. 

What do you think?

Philosophy and the behavioral science of decision making

I was reading an article today that brought up a very interesting conundrum.  What should you do if the law, professional ethics, and/or your personal morals disagree?  Which one takes precedence?  The article concerned medical caregivers.  They focused on what to do when the decision based on your personal morals would benefit the patient but the decision based on your professional ethics would benefit the hospital.  Or if the decision based on professional ethics would benefit yourself, but the decision based on your personal morals would benefit the patient.  There are many different possible combinations.

One example is palliative care.  The law says that you can’t give patients drugs that don’t benefit their health.  The Hippocratic Oath says basically the same thing.  But what if the dose of morphine that would ease the patient’s pain would make their medical condition worse and hasten their death?  The law says you can’t do it, your morals might say that you should do it, and medical ethics are currently debating the subject and so are unclear.  The hospital might have a policy that is murky also, or may be designed to cover their legal butts. 

This is the kind of question I think I could sit with a handful of thoughtful friends around a table and debate for hours over a few bottles of wine or pots of cappuccino.  And enjoy every minute of it.