Smartphones appear to be terrible things. Sherry Turkle thinks they are ruining conversation. Now the BBC writes that digital dependence is eroding human memory. They quote a recent study that asked questions to 6,000 people, and found that over a third of them would look the answer up on the Internet before responding. According to a press release from Kaspersky Lab, an Internet security firm that commissioned the study, it is a plague of "Digital Amnesia." Maria Wimber of the University of Birmingham, who reviewed the study, notes:

Past research has repeatedly demonstrated that actively recalling information is a very efficient way to create a permanent memory. In contrast, passively repeating information (e.g. by repeatedly looking it up on the internet) does not create a solid, lasting memory trace in the same way. Based on this research, it can be argued that the trend to look up information before even trying to recall it prevents the build-up of long-term memories.

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The question of the effect of technology on our memories has been around for a while. I do remember that it troubled Socrates a few thousand years ago, when writing was developed; According to Plato he said:

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.

And then there was that Gutenberg guy, who Bill Keller of the New York Times called the Mark Zuckerberg of his day: "As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse."

digital amnesiaUm, what was that number again? (Photo: Kaspersky Lab)

But the smartphone and the Internet! The survey found that more than half of the surveyed adult Europeans could not recall their children’s or their office phone numbers without looking into their mobile phones. Around a third were not able to remember their partner’s number. Shocking, how bad our memories have become; a lot of people they studied could remember their phone numbers from their childhood, but not their wives's numbers now.

But there is a reason for this that goes deeper than the Internet and smartphones. In fact, remembering phone numbers has been an issue since they were invented. Originally, they were four digits tied back to a telephone exchange where the wires went. So my Grandmother's real estate office was EMpire 8842. My parents' number was RUssell 1-8184 as they added the number and the dash after the exchange. The Empire and the Russell were used to make it easier to remember, because who could possibly keep all those numbers in their heads? I still remember them because as a kid I had to — it was drilled into us in case we ever got into trouble and had to call home. That's what you did, because that's where mom was in those days.

Then the exchanges went away and we had to remember seven digits, and not too long ago the area codes were added in and we all had to remember ten digits. Everybody knew that the numbers were getting too long and too hard to remember, but way back in 1992 Brian Hayes, a writer for The Sciences Magazine, wrote about how things might change:

I can imagine a kind of user interface that might ultimately evolve. In a couple of decades, perhaps, the telephone will have no dial at all. You will simply pick up the receiver and say, "Jenny, get me Mrs. Wilson, please. Thank you, dear."

Sounds like Siri to me. The fact is, remembering phone numbers is silly and archaic and was always a work-around. Not remembering them is not a sign of losing our memories, it's a sign that our technology is getting better and doesn't need them anymore.

Then there is the point that the late Nora Ephron made about how useful all this technology is for those who are getting older and are having trouble remembering everything the way they used to.

I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn't it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up.

The whole Kaspersky study is getting a lot of press because of its claim that we are losing our ability to remember things and offloading it all to our computers, Google and the cloud. "As many researchers say, when we store information externally (e.g. in a phone), we thereby encourage our mind to erase it." But this is not a bad thing; it makes room for more. People have always used notebooks and sticky notes and other tools to remember stuff. And what's the conclusion of the study? When you read on, you find that it's all about buying IT security and anti-malware software to protect our memories. "Not surprisingly, the study found that the loss or compromise of data stored on digital devices, and smartphones in particular, would cause immense distress, particularly among women and younger people." In other words, your brain needs a backup and a firewall, which is what they do.

Douglas Adams wrote:

  1. everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

I suspect that if we all just read that before we read these horror stories about what new technology is doing to us and those kids out there, I wouldn't have much to write about.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.