The dominant culture around spaced repetition memory systems is fixated on meaningless goals

Spaced repetition memory systems make memory a choice, but retention is not valuable for its own sake. Memory is valuable insofar as it helps people do whatever gives their lives meaning: Tools for thought should be evaluated in the context of intrinsically meaningful purposes. Unfortunately, the dominant culture around memory systems veers heavily toward memory for its own sake.

If you spend time on /r/anki, you’ll see people swapping tips about how to memorize all the capitals in Africa, or all the U.S. presidents, as if they were learning to perform party tricks. These people are often fastidiously concerned with the performance and efficiency of the memory systems—optimization for its own sake, serving memory for its own sake.

You’ll also see people who try to remember every detail of everything they read (“just in case”), but without seriously engaging with the texts in any other way. One gets the sense that they’re terrified of ever “losing” anything (contra Collecting material feels more useful than it usually is). This obsession drives much of the Note-writing system culture as well, stretching back to Ted Nelson.

This is a hazard for my work. I don’t want to serve or expand this culture. Early adopters for my work will often come from this culture. I must be careful to filter what they say through this lens. Enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building. Time spent in deliberate practice with a memory system is helpful insofar as it removes barriers from doing something actually meaningful. The critical thing to optimize in spaced repetition memory systems is emotional connection to the review session and its contents.

A significant exception to this observation is the community of medical students using memory systems to accelerate their studies. Of course, many (most?) of them view it as a way to help them pass a difficult test, rather than a way to, say, improve patient care. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Another significant exception can be found in communities of language learners. Many of these people are using memory systems to help them engage more deeply with a new culture that’s very meaningful to them. Of course, many are, say, memorizing 10,000 kanji just because it seems like a fun challenge or like something they “should” do.

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Last updated 2023-07-13.