The word exobrain has been playing on my mind for many years now. I wasn’t sure how many years until trying to work out where, exactly, I first came across it. I thought it was in this Oliver Burkeman piece in which he confesses that he is “obsessed with index cards”. He writes about many notable index card users, including the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who created “what he called his ‘secondary memory’: an index-card system that held, eventually, a lifetime of research notes”.
I’m pretty good with dates and am surprised to find that this was published over eight years ago. In my memory it was more recent, and the word “exobrain” replaced the phrase “secondary memory”. I knew that I had come across the word in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine some Saturday, many years ago. Where was it? It turns out to be in this “Writers’ Rooms” piece by Russell Hoban, which I have already linked to in two previous pieces on this Blog. It was the subject of my second piece here, back in December 2015 (“Clutter, and a consolation”). Hoban described his extraordinarily cluttered working space as follows: “This room, full of all kinds of reference materials, is what I call my exobrain”. The piece comes from November 2007 (Hoban died in 2011).
Urban Dictionary defines exobrain (or exo-brain) as “your extended brainpower from the information you have access to from your computer or the web”. I view it differently. I regard the exobrain as a collection of things that you have access to but which have passed through your brain at some point, and been recorded in some way. A collection of index cards, notebooks, computer files or recordings could form part of your exobrain but not the Encyclopedia Britannica (unless you have read every article in it) or the whole of the web.
As the months go by these Blog Posts are beginning to form part of my own exobrain, a collection of things that no longer play on my mind in the way that they used to. Every now and then an idea comes to mind for a new Post and I find that I have already published it. George McCrae was the guest on the “Tracks of my years” feature in Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show last week. I recalled my daughter, around the time of her second birthday, singing along to McCrae’s song “You can have it all” and thought it would be worth drafting to sit alongside other pieces on this site about cherished memories. I find that I have already written about it, and other cherished memories, in this piece, which grew unexpectedly and was left with a few loose ends to tie up at some point. Half-forgotten stories with a few loose ends: my exobrain isn’t very different from my actual brain.