Monday, January 20, 2014

Assignment: How Stuff Works Part 1 - Memory

How Stuff Works: Memory

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Some Basics:

Memory refers simply to any form of electronic data storage; however, it typically means storage that is quickly accessible and temporary. Anytime you operate your computer, it uses memory to run faster. Since information stored on the hard drive can take a long time for the computer to access, the computer places information in temporary storage that is more readily accessible so the processor works more quickly. 

RAM stands for Random Access Memory and is the most common type of temporary storage used by a computer. The way it works is when the computer user starts the computer and runs applications, the information needed to do those tasks is placed in RAM to make it more easily accessible. Instead of going to the hard drive to get that information, the processor can just go into the RAM and get it faster (Tyson, "How Computer"). 

But RAM alone is not enough memory for all the applications a computer-user typically wants to run. Other types of memory need to be used to keep operations open and running. This is where cache memory - or caching - can help. A cache will help your computer run faster by keeping the most frequently used information in a special separate storage area on the chip of the processor, or CPU (Provost). This special area can be accessed more quickly than RAM. Several caches can be put in place to speed processing overall.

Once you no longer need that information or data - say from an application like an internet browser - the RAM will purge that information to make room for something else. If the user wants to access the information at a later date, the data must be saved in long-term, permanent memory - like a hard disk.

Hard Disk
Image by How Stuff Works

Hard disks uses magnetic recording techniques - much like a cassette tape - that can easily write and rewrite data onto the disk. It lives inside the computer attached to the motherboard, usually housed in an aluminum case like the one pictured above. So unlike RAM, the information on a hard disk will not be purged until the user removes it (Brain).

Taking Memory with Us:

Sometimes, we want to take our data with us. That is where removable storage - or portable memory - can help.  Portable memory takes the form of different media - a floppy disk, flash drive, digital memory cards, or CD are common media forms of portable memory. They work when the user inserts or connects the media to the computer and selects data from the computer to be stored on it. Disks use magnetic recording like hard drives while CDs use lasers to write, erase, and rewrite data (Tyson, "How Removable"). Flash storage and memory cards are completely electronic with no moving parts like disks. Instead, they use transistors and an electrical charge to excite electrons to "write" data on an embedded chip (Tyson, "How Flash").

Memory as Technology Changes:

I think in my desk drawer right now I still have some old 3.5 inch floppy disks with undergraduate papers and an old Power Point or two on them. What treasures of my past would they reveal if only I had the technology still needed to access them? 

The nature of memory is that as technology changes and improves, we can fine ever smaller, ever more powerful storage tools to hold our data. If we aren't vigilant, then it is possible that our stored information will become lost in the heap of out-dated technology - right along side my floppies, which are next to my cassettes, next to someone's laser disc, and someone else's eight-tracks.

So what does the future of memory look like? Some indicate that like printers, the future of memory is 3D, specifically 3D holographic memory. Like CDs, holographic memory is a type of optical memory, using laser light to write data onto the recording medium. however, where CDs can only store data on the surface, holographic memory would be able to record bits throughout the volume of the device. This would allow for greater storage and faster speeds when calling forth data. By some estimates, a holographic device would be able to store 1 terabyte of data in a one centimeter cube (Bonser). A terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes. The potential for speed and space is significant.

Pyramid depicting relationship between various types of memory.
Image by How Stuff Works

Implications for Network Theory:

If you're anything like me, you have a laptop at home, a desk top computer in your office, a smart phone, and a tablet. You have files saved on your lap top, some at that work computer, others attached to emails or stashed in email folders, content may live on Blackboard or another website, there are photos on an SD card in a digital camera, perhaps some saved in a Google Drive, while others live in the network drive assigned to you from ODU or your job, and then there are the countless others saved on a drawer-full of flash drives and memory sticks. It's harder and harder to remember where we put our memory!

If we think about memory and our ability to store information as a network, we can see how these different spaces act as nodes. There is certainly connections between them as most of us have the same - or similar versions - saved in multiple spaces. Perhaps we have some loose guidelines about what we save where - course work in a Google Drive but files for work on the laptop - but what is it like to try to function within this memory network?

And as the previous section suggests, sometimes these nodes of memory become outdated - thus disconnected from the network altogether, information lost and forgotten or frustratingly unreachable.

Technology brings with it many conveniences, but we also rely on its memory. Do you know the phone numbers of your loved ones, or do you have to look it up in your phone? If your laptop crashed, would you lose important files that exist nowhere else?

To participate in all areas of our lives - home lives, work lives, school lives - we rely of stored data, on memory, but when nodes and connections break down and cut us off from that memory we are unable to participate. Ever have that frustrating experience of being at work but needing that file from your laptop? Or be logged into a computer in the classroom and have access to the shared network, but have the file you need saved on your desk top back in the office?

Fluid participation in life requires fluid movement through the network of memory that we have all created in our many spaces.



  1. Take a few minutes to brainstorm/freewrite a list of all the places where you have data stored in memory - all the types of memory you use and access. 
  2. Think about the different types of data you store in these various places. Are there clear distinctions between the locations, or do you store files in whatever memory system is most readily available? Do you save in multiple locations as back-up or for convenience? Are you ever frustrated by the breadth of your memory?
  3. Using Google Drawings (or draw by hand) to create a Venn Diagram showing the network of your memory systems. Label the spheres with the different places where you have stored data - lap top, work computer, Google Drive, flash drive, etc. Overlap the  spheres where we have stored the same data. Write the type of data (lesson plan, essay, photos) on the overlapping area of the sphere to show what you keep where.
  4. Post to your blog (embed or scan and upload) with the tag "Memory Network" and maybe write a comment or two about anything interesting you learned.

Works Cited:

Bonser, Kevin. "How HolographicMemory Will Work." How Stuff Works. 08 Nov. 2000.  How Stuff Works, Inc.. Web. 20 January 2014.

Brain, Marshall. "How Hard DisksWork." How Stuff Works. 01 Apr. 2000.  How Stuff Works, Inc.. Web. 20 January 2014.

Provost, Guy. "How Caching Works.How Stuff Works. 01 Apr. 2000.  How Stuff Works, Inc.. Web. 20 January 2014.

Tyson, Jeff.  "HowComputer Memory Works." How Stuff Works. 23 Aug. 2000.  How Stuff Works, Inc.. Web. 20 January 2014.

---. "How Flash Memory Works." How Stuff Works. 30 Aug. 2000.  How Stuff Works, Inc.. Web. 20 January 2014.

---. "How Removable Memory Works." How Stuff Works. 28 May 2001.  How Stuff Works, Inc.. Web. 20 January 2014.


  1. You're write-up was really helpful! I have to admit, I'm tech-stupid (which is why your links to everyone's activities is also greatly appreciated. As I mentioned on FB, I was getting lost in a sea of blog posts!).

  2. I love the pyramid image that include inputs; very useful!