If you are over the age of 30 you can probably recall the days of having to memorize phone numbers. You can probably also remember having to struggle to re-fold a paper map. You perhaps even gave directions that included something to the tune of, “1.2 miles after the big yellow sign, turn left onto Jackson Road.” Those days are long gone. Mobile has obliterated entire swaths of cognitive functions. No longer burdened by such paltry mental tasks, we rely heavily on our mobile devices to handle such inconsequential details.
Mobile devices provide a level of connectedness and convenience never before experienced by the masses. Late for a meeting? With just the click of a button you can instantly let everyone know you are running five minutes behind. Trying to find that new cool restaurant? Not only can your mobile device give you turn-by-turn directions, it also warns you not to order the tuna tartare.
But what does this do to our intellectual function? As we supplant memorization tasks to technology, are we better or worse off because of it? Is there value to memorizing phone numbers or appointments in our calendar/diary? I would bet good money that your day would go seriously sideways if you lost your mobile device.
Storing information “off-site” from our brain has been an evolving (and derided) practice since the time of Gutenberg. Our brains have limited memorization capacity. The ability to save information outside our brain is the biological equivalent of a memory upgrade. Besides allowing us to remember more than humanly possible, our bodies are not immortal, so the ability to capture thoughts outside of ourselves allows them to persist beyond our lifetime.
Another advantage to leveraging mobile devices and services is the unreliability of human recollection. When it comes to memorizing large chunks of information we are good, but not great. We forget certain pieces over time. From this perspective, a pointer to the information is infinitely better than attempting to remember the information. That is—it is much easier to remember where you captured and left all the information than remembering all the information itself.
By offloading some of the brain drain of memorizing menial details, we create the space to conceptualize larger sets of data into higher-order ideas. Much the same way that we can work out higher-order math problems because we can use a calculator rather than memorize multiplication tables, mobile devices create the opportunity to spend time thinking about bigger and more complex problems. But do we?
I have noticed major changes in my behavior in how I live, work, and travel. For example, I recently attended a conference in San Francisco. In trips past, before the days of mobile proliferation, I would have looked up the schedule for the plane and train, reviewed directions to the hotel and conference, as well as reviewed the conference schedule.
But for this trip I had registered for the event, bought the ticket, and booked the accommodations months before and threw links to the information in a calendar/diary appointment. I didn’t review a single thing before leaving. I didn’t even look at the departure time for the very early 5 a.m. flight until I was getting into bed and setting the alarm on my phone. When the taxi driver asked which airline I was flying I had to look at my phone. When I arrived at SFO I clicked on the link for the conference to get the address and used the GPS on my phone to orient myself.
My old self would have surely panicked in the above scenario upon realizing I had no idea where I was going. But my mobile self had no concerns whatsoever. I nonchalantly sauntered into the convention only to realize I didn’t know the agenda either. Luckily I just clicked the link, decided which session to attend, and off I went.
If you take this experience as a model for mobile lifestyle it is easy to see that decision making and action are being delayed until the last possible moment. How are we using the extra mental cycles? How do we fill the space and time that the convenience of mobility brings? Are we experiencing a dramatic shift in how the human population uses its mental capacity?
What is potentially lost is time spent being able to combine ideas, concepts, and locations. This sense of delayed implementation does not allow time for ideas to “simmer” in our heads. We tend to just react more rather than think. Turn left now, go to this meeting now, and respond to this message that popped up in front of you.
The hope is that by delaying this decision and action process we can collect as much information as possible to be able to make better decisions. But what does this instant-answer technology say about the value of thinking over possible paths? If we rely too heavily on technology do we fully grasp concepts and ideas? Is someone or something always right there to tell us the answer? Do we lose the ability to synthesize information? What do you think—are we worse off intellectually because of smartphones?