What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos


Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers


Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge


Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
With rendition switcher


Question: Is technology a kind of external brain?

William Powers:  I think increasingly we do think of it that way, as a very helpful extension of our brain... really of our brain power, of our memory capacity.  We can offload a lot of burdens onto technology now and not have to carry around so much information ourselves, you know. We can carry it in a cloud or whatever happens to be the metaphor of the moment.  And really sort of not feel that we have to be kind of our own hard drive.  We have a hard drive that works for us but the problem is that potential was there.  But I think we're not using it the way we might.  There is this sense that you do have to be carrying, literally the hard drive around with you all the time and therefore yourself being accessible to all these distractions and all these tasks that can come at you all through the day.

If it's true that technology is there to relieve some of the burden, why do we all feel so burdened by the technology?  That's sort of the disconnect, if you will, of the new connectedness that I think we need to fix.  I feel many ways in which... I love it that I can store so much on my hard drive and the notes that I'm taking for my next book, they're already piling up in there and it's so great.  I don't have to worry about notebooks or even carrying the thought around with me.  But if I'm also walking around all day just at the beck and call of that little screen in my pocket, I'm not following through on this fantastic ability I have to be less burdened by the age of information.

Question: Does technology replace memory?

William Powers:  I think less use of memory for tasks that it's not so important to use memory for perhaps, for the more mundane, less creative aspects of memory perhaps.  I mean, if you need to store a lot of data just to have it, just in case but it's not data you need to draw on in important ways for your work or for your everyday life that's beautiful.  I mean, I think that's what the hard drive's all about.  We don't want to reach a point where I think where we feel, "Oh gosh I don't have to remember anything because it's all going to go on my Blackberry or my Blackberry is thinking for me."  Because, as we all know, you know, the beauty of the human brain is it's wonderful associative ability.

It can make new associations.  This is the essence of creativity.  New associations better than any device ever created and probably that ever will be created.  You can't replace that with a computer, so you have to have the crucial framework of facts and experiences and learning really permanently stored on your own hard drive in order to make those associations. If they're living somewhere else, you can't make those creative associations that are uniquely human.

But I think for the really, really sort of ordinary or massive amounts of information that you might only need to draw on once in a while, it's sort of equivalent to the way that card catalogs of libraries moves onto hard drives.  You know, you wouldn't want to know everything that's in a card catalog but you want to be able to draw on it when you need it and figure out if there's a book on x-y-z given subject.  It's the same thing, you know.  That kind of stuff, the big time storage of the stuff you don't need everyday, these devices were made for that.  But in terms of the things you might need to call on today because it could contribute to some project you're doing, you don't want to get rid of that, obviously.

Recorded September 13, 2010

Interviewed by John Cookson

More from the Big Idea for Thursday, June 07 2012

Today's Big Idea: Crowdsourcing Consciousness

Is technology a kind of external brain? Tech writer William Powers sees computers as an extension of the human mind, expanding our capacity for memory storage and information retrieval. True, your... Read More…


Your Blackberry Is Your Brain

Newsletter: Share: