If your phone were wiped completely of all of your contacts, how many numbers would you still know by heart? Your family’s? A few friends?
We rely on our technology devices more than ever before. Sure, this might not seem like the end of the world when it’s just a few phone numbers we’re talking about. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of losing mental capabilities in the digital age seems to be going far beyond just that.
Research conducted at Columbia University showed that people recall far more information when they don’t believe it is stored elsewhere ( Sparrow, 2011). When study participants were told information would be erased, they had higher performance results and remembered more. In other words, if people can find the information they need on their phone or computer, they won’t remember the information themselves because they know a device is remembering it for them.
This raises the concern that people will stop remembering basic information on their own and will rely solely on digital technologies. One might retort that the Internet and technology provide us with much more knowledge and information than we would be able to gain without them, and I would agree. Using the Internet and technology to gain additional knowledge is one of the great benefits of living in the digital age.
But using these sources as substitutes for actually knowing essential information could lead to a society full of people that are dependent on machines instead of using their own brainpower. Further evidence suggests that technology is creating a backward flow of progress in other brain functions as well.
Professionals in the online realm have reported a distinct decrease in their ability to comprehend and remember information that they read, whether it be an online or print source. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” said American writer Nicholas Carr (
Carr, 2008). The style of reading that takes place on the Internet puts “efficiency and immediacy above all else” says developmental psychologist Maryann Wolf.
At the end of the day, the worry is that the Internet will essentially perform all of our intellectual functions, many of which we used to be able to perform by ourselves. “[The internet] is becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV… Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today” (Carr, 2008).
That is not to give a dystopian message that technology is an evil presence that is going to take over human thought completely. On the contrary, technology allows us to learn about information and see places in the world we may never have heard of otherwise, and it graces us with the ability to communicate with anyone around the world in the blink of the eye.
The problem lies within the construct that the Internet or technology should replace the powerful mechanisms of the human brain. Technology should serve as a supplement, rather than a replacement to human memory and individual thought processing. So don’t go run out and protest at your local Apple store. Instead, just try being mindful of times you can rely on your brain rather than a device so that we preserve the ability to function without pressing an ON button.