Bards from ancient times used to memorize entire books and histories. Now, we’re reduced to having to check a cell phone to look up a 7-digit telephone number.
This fact comes via security company Kaspersky Labs. Its report, The Rise and Impact of Digital Amnesia, describes “Digital Amnesia: the experience of forgetting information that you trust a digital device to store and remember for you.”
“Across the United States, the study shows that an overwhelming number of consumers can easily admit their dependency on the Internet and devices as a tool for remembering,” the organization writes. “Almost all (91.2 percent) of those surveyed agreed that they use the Internet as an online extension of their brain. Almost half (44.0 percent) also admit that their smartphone serves as their memory–everything they need to recall and want to have easy access to is all on it.”
What’s more, we actually like it that way, Kaspersky asserts. “When faced with a question, half of U.S. consumers would turn to the Internet before trying to remember and 28.9 percent would forget an online fact as soon as they had used it.”
Yes, it’s true. People don’t want to waste their valuable brain cells on a phone number that could be better used to keep track of the latest Jon Snow parentage theory on Game of Thrones.
And this isn’t just a millennial phenomenon, either. “Contrary to general assumptions, Digital Amnesia is not only affecting younger digital natives–the study found that it was equally and some times more prevalent in older age groups,” Kaspersky writes. “For example, respondents aged 45 and older are more likely to head straight for the Internet for the answer to a question, and write the fact down or choose to forget an online fact once they’ve used it on the assumption that it will always be out there somewhere.”
This isn’t because older people are less smart—it’s because they just have so much more stuff to remember. “There seems to be some evidence that older individuals have trouble retrieving information because they have more information to sort through,” notes Dr. Kathryn Mills, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, in the study. “In theory, this could mean that ‘offloading’ some of our information to a digital device could make it easier to recall the information we have retained.”
After all, isn’t that the idea behind so many of today’s computing concepts, ranging from enterprise content management (ECM) systems to big data? That the computer can keep much more of this stuff in its brain than we can? That way, we can spend our time using information, instead of remembering it.
People are even beginning to adapt to these “auxiliary brains.” A seminal paper published in Science in 2011 detailed research by Harvard and the Universities of Columbia and Wisconsin into memory and Internet use, Kaspersky notes. “The study showed that the way young people in the U.S. remembered information was changing as a result of being able to find information online: they retained fewer facts but could readily recall where the information was stored. The researchers called this ‘the Google effect.’”
But is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Instead, we’re just using technology to assist us in remembering in the same way that we use technology to help us with other things, writes Hermann Mauer in Communications of the ACM.
“We should not judge persons now and in the future without the technological tools they are using, whether those tools are built-in (pacemaker) or external (hearing aid, smartphone, reading software for visually challenged persons, tablet PCs, Google Glass),” Mauer writes. “We have long accepted this for physical properties: my grandfather was strong: he could carry 50kg 20 kilometres in four hours! Well, I can do better: I can carry 250kg 200 kilometres in two hours with my car.”
Instead, the ability to “outsource” our memory to devices and ECM software simply means we start using our minds in a new way, anthropologist Dr. Genevieve Bell, a vice-president at Intel and director of the company’s Corporate Sensing and Insights Group, tells the Independent. “Being able to create a well-formed question is an act of intelligence, as you quickly work out what information you want to extract and identify the app to help achieve this,” she says. “To me, this suggests a level of engagement with the world that’s not about dumbness.”
Now, if we could just keep from misplacing our phones.
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