Smart Phones, The Internet, Alzheimer’s and Life in the Cloud

In the March 12 issue of Time magazine there is an article titled, “Is your head in the cloud?” The article deals with our changing methods of dealing with factual questions. The writer Annie Murray Paul believes that we are outsourcing our memories to the internet and our electronic devices. She reviews the information from an article in Science magazine from last year by Dr. Betsy Sparrow an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University. The “Science article” reveals three unsettling facts according to Sparrow’s research:

1. When asked a difficult question research indicates that our first thoughts now are not about the question asked but where the nearest computer is to find the answer.

2. If we expect to easily be able to find needed information again via internet/smart phone etc. after our first electronic access we don’t remember the acquired information that well, if at all if we believe we can re-access it at will.

3. Our memories are no longer filled with information we need but are instead filled with information about where we can find it.

The author says we should not be concerned about this because it is just an outgrowth of ‘Transactive memory” in which we delegate different portions of problems to different people or machines if I understand this correctly transactive memory is like what I have learned from family life in ads on TV where I have learned that mom knows almost everything and dad only knows how to do things like drinking beer and destroying things… tranactive memory then is sort of a simple division of labor type thing.

I personally believe that if these research results are true, they are perhaps the most frightening research stats that I have seen in a long time. The evolutionary degradation of our ability to remember and reason may have already started and because humankind has shown that ability to evolve rapidly this may proceed at a rapid rate.

Our personal responsibility for our actions are the sum total of the experiences and the memories that our brain uses to gude us through the maze of a life many of them interconnected in subconscious ways that we hardly ever notice. In our complex world, every one of those memories and experiences that we miss or delegate to a piece of electronics is one less available piece of information we may need when a computer or smart phone is not readily available. Some examples might include “What to do in the event of a heart attack or stroke.” or perhaps, ” where you should go in a tornado.” Even more significantly, in our time crazed world, it is unquestionably inefficient to use a phone or computer to look up what you should already know. Things that your grandparents stored in memory and still use 70 years later could become a thing of the past. They were able to store these memories because they used them not outsourced them and one of the greater truths of history is that, ” those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” As a simple test of this, how many of you hold in your memory right now 10 phone numbers or zip codes? I must profess that because I have a “dumb” phone that is still smart enough to know numbers I can think of only 5 phone numbers and 2 zip codes besides my own and all of the ones I remember are at least 10 years old. I can remember no new phone numbers.

I just recently worked with a couple of very bright 6th grade girls who were taking high school algebra and had a good theoretical functional basic knowledge of how algebra works but made simple computational mistakes in division and multiplication and lacked some foundational mathematical facts like the formula for the area of a triangle. When questioned about these failings both pointed out hat they used calculators in class for mathematical operations and those functions and formulas were built-in so they did not need to know them. I am aware that Einstein said , ” I don’t need to know what I can look up,” but my sense of unease grows with each memory emulating cell phone/computer app invented that is used by students and children when their memories should be growing and becoming concrete at a prodigious rate… never mind the life skill enriching memories that may now be lost forever in forgotten e-mails, text messages and Facebook pages.

You can probably tell I have a “dumb” phone not a “smart” one so I sort of sound like the person who only watches public television, only listens to NPR or disdains both in favor of books. A person who by example haughtily notes your plebian roots. I do know that if I had a smart phone I would have apps on it just like everyone else but my phone has no apps just like my computer has no games on it. I will avoid having a smart phone for as long as possible because I know that playing and watching others/machines doing your work for you, is almost always more fun and easier that doing it yourself even if it isn’t good for you. I also wonder what implications smart phones and the internet have for the exponential growth of Alzheimer’s disease as this generation ages and their potentially weaker inter-brain connections begin to gather some rust as happens with most of us.

An econ professor I had in college (sorry I can’t remember his name – its been 40 years) once said, ” As the quality of technology improves so does the quality of the disaster when it fails.”

As our heads/minds become more and more involved and co dependent with our machines and as we spend more and more time in the “cloud” we must realize that the cloud only exists as a collection of invisible electrons ,controlled by the often (for us commoners) indecipherable rules of quantum mechanics. Electrons and smaller particles moving through a constantly uncertain and at times almost indefinable multiplicity of incredibly complex and strangely unconnected while connected paths that most of us will never fully understand.

We may float, fly through and use the ethereal electronic cloud with virtual ease and impunity however if our feet are not touching the ground of hard facts and experiences we may not be able to tell exactly where we are going, how we got there or where we have been. We can now travel through the cloud at high speeds and because most of us childishly believe in its veracity we will at times make mistakes and spread mistakes without noticing or feeling the pain. And as we begin to believe through our experiences that the cloud will always be there for us we must also consider the cold hard facts that somewhere in lots of clouds there are mountain tops made of cold solid immutable reality not a soft forgiving nearly weightless mass of quantum particles

If we continue to tacitly accept the degradation of our memories in the future we may find that the cloud may blur our vision so much that we find ourselves learning of reality in a truly painful and brutal fashion when we find one of those cold hard mountain tops of truth.

Orwell’s “1984”, Bradbury’s “The Veldt”, Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Forrester’s “The Machine Stops,”(thanks to my brother for introducing me to this one) although all written years ago seem to be remarkably prescient in nature. “Harrison Bergeron”, The Veldt, and “The Machine Stops” are all short stories and old enough to be available free on-line, I believe all will make you think of where we have been, where we are going and just maybe why we should not go there or at least memorize the route instead of hitting the GPS button.


About safrisri

I was a school teacher until retirement. I have taught at all educational levels from pre-school to college. My college degree is general science which I arrived at after 5 years and 5 different majors. A degree as it turns out, almost as valuable and in demand as one in Neo-Bulgarian Mythology. I have been around education for around 40 years and can remember when teaching was a pleasant, happy and creative job and our schools were the same. Now I'm the guy sitting on the porch with an opinion on everything.
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