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The Supreme Killer App: Your Memory

I have a confession to make. One that will make me sound like a Luddite. One that elicits the
response, "Are you kidding me? It's 2009!" . . . Ready?
I memorize stuff. Mundane stuff. Phone numbers. Email addresses. Appointments. I don't use
the contacts feature on my cell phone, or the calendar on Gmail, or the personal organizer on any
handheld device. And, no, I don't rely instead on an old-style paper planner or address book. Not
even a desk blotter, retro as that would be. I memorize things, plain and simple -- as if Gutenberg
never lived, as if the Egyptians never started using papyrus.
It's true that when I worked full-time and had to coordinate with large numbers of people who
had a common mission, I was fully on board with using a shared electronic calendar. I dutifully
booked and accepted all my meetings on it -- and, for a few months, forced myself to rely on it
exclusively (without my memory), though in the end I got bored. I even was -- and still am -- one
of those people whom others seek out to help them with their electronic tools. Clearly, willful
rebellion is not what's driving me. I'm not actually a Luddite. I can enjoy being a techie, just not
as a way of life.
So what's motivating this foolish behavior? It's, in part, a kind of primal stimulation that my
mind craves. Using electronic tools is extremely practical and fun, but relying on them denies me
the fulfillment of a basic need. My head goes soft when I give it a crutch, and that softness shows
up in my work. In contrast, when I deftly spin my mental Rolodex, my mind bristles with neural
activity. You might even say I get high on it.
There's also a moral dimension to the choice. I believe in this mental high. It elevates me as a
person, and (without meaning to sound like a missionary) I think it elevates us as a species.
There's something intoxicating about a room full of flesh-and-blood creatures who can call up -without an electronic aid -- any of thousands of details, no matter how mundane, at a second's
notice in order to organize and plan their activities. Indeed, the more mundane the details are, the
more delightfully freakish and exhilarating it is to recall them.
Besides, people tend to smile at this behavior when they see it in action. As a teacher of English,
when I know all the names in a new class of students within a few minutes, they feel appreciated,
instantly recognized as learners, accountable to this person who stands before them. That, I
believe, makes them much more willing to memorize geometry formulas, comma rules, and the
principal parts of verbs. There is power in memory, and witnessing it makes one crave it.
At this point, you may be wondering whether my self-bought health insurance comes with
psychiatric benefits. But if instead you're intrigued by these musings of a madman, try making
the mundane magnificent through memorization. It won't mean giving up your electronic tools
(their many practical benefits are indisputable), but it will mean feeling more independent of
them, more powerful as a thinking creature.

You'll be amazed how satisfying it is to retrieve phone numbers instantly -- even faster than
pressing *1. And seeing your calendar in your mind's eye is better than having it at your
fingertips. Besides, it's nice to know you won't be in ruins if you drop your device in a puddle,
even for the relatively brief period it takes to restore your lost information to a new tool. Safety
and self-sufficiency go hand-in-hand.
What are your thoughts about the value of memorization? Is that type of aspiration itself simply a
quaint memory in 2009? Or do you see a role for it in our tech-heavy world?
Having spent most of my life either in school (five degrees) or teaching in school (tenured
professor), one might think that I've lived in a doorless ivory tower. Fortunately along the way
I've had transformative interactions with industry in my role as both a consultant and designer for
companies like Phillips, Reebok, Samsung, Google, and Cartier. Actively living between the
spaces of academia and industry have made me appreciate the necessary synergy between both
It is common to hear from industry, "Why are academics so insular?" And alternatively from
academia, "Why is business so short-sighted?" The stereotypes fit in some cases, but I like to
think that there's a simpler way to understand how the two worlds differ in terms of the
"punctuation marks" that define the desired outcomes of the two crafts. I focus on four of those
punctuation marks here to identify the general difference between academia and industry of
"long-term" horizon versus "short-term" horizon thinking, but also offer the "RISD difference"
within this simple vocabulary of marks.**

In academia there is the luxury of time. Thus when a thought might start, it doesn't
necessarily have to finish. You can begin ... and not necessarily end. It is this kind of openendedness that makes academia a necessary space of free thought in the world. The free space is
a necessary inefficiency designed into the academic system so that new thoughts can form in the
most productive manner which is through the natural reinforcement of the passage of time.
In industry we like to hear the virtues of "execution" and "getting things done." Got an
idea? Set a target deadline. When you're done, package the result and move onto the next task.
Don't think. Just do. And keep on doing. One of my best friends at Samsung epitomizes this
approach to his life at work. And I admire it, and emulate it in things that I do with my own

In industry it's important to be heard. Speaking up is critical for an individual's or idea's

survival. "I can't hear you." No. I really can't. So what do you do? YELL. YEEEEEELLLLLL.
And you still hope to get heard. By your boss, of course. Or even better by your boss's boss. If
Darwin were to observe what usually happens in industry, I would think he would conclude that
those with the largest larynx (for voicing an opinion), the biggest fists (for pounding the table),

and with the greatest cunning (for seeming unannoying) are guaranteed the next level of survival
to the next round of The Apprentice.

In academia there's always a need to think critically. Debate is the starting- and endingpoint for all meaningful dialogue. Got an idea? Question it. And question the question while
you're at it. Incidentally, from my two years working with Becky, there are times when it appears
I literally drive her crazy. She'll tell me, "Stop that Socrates sh*t! Give me a definite answer. Not
a definitive question!"

So the and the

are about the long view. The and the are about what lives in the short
term. But what does this have to do with being the president of RISD? Well. I've discovered a
new model in which academia exists. I call it the world of the "Question-Period." Let me explain.
At RISD, what I've observed in the students and faculty here is that the
is considered to be
poor form. There is no need to overstate one's case. A good idea simply has good value, and a
critical audience will most easily recognize that value when it is understated. The same can be
said for the because at RISD there is a clear sense that work must be completed. And it can't
be completed just on a whim. There has to be a rigorous assault at a concept and in its execution.
A means that you've given up. So you absolutely need a to make a clear, defensible
expression or result. And lastly, and firstly, and in between first and last, you must be constantly
because the work makes you think. And thinking is about asking questions.
Every day I see folks on campus in this constant mode of Question-Period. It is one of the many
reasons why I am proud to be here, and I am excited to introduce the world of business to the
ever-inspiring world of RISD.
** Note at RISD we pronounce it "riz-dee"