When Your Backup Brain (i.e., Technology) Takes On Primary Memory Functions

from the i'd-say-it's-bad,-but-my-computer-disagrees... dept

For years, we've talked about the idea that computers and the internet are becoming something of a backup or second brain. The more we use these technologies, the more we allow them to remember stuff for us -- knowing we can always track down that information. In fact, Clive Thompson's latest column is about how the generation of kids growing up online tend not to remember little things that older generations definitely remember, like phone numbers and birthdays. Why remember those things when they're easily stored away and easily accessed thanks to technology? While Thompson talks about how nice it is that he can feel much smarter while he's connected, he also worries that it makes him "mentally crippled" when not connected. There may be something to that idea. After all, a few years ago there was a story about Steve Mann, a professor who had been living his life with a wearable computing system for 20 years. At an airport, he was forced to take the apparatus off and immediately had trouble functioning normally. He had become so reliant on the technological enhancements, that being without them left him somewhat crippled. While few people will have reached that point, it's certainly suggestive of what happens if we become too reliant on those external backup brains. That's not to say we shouldn't be using technology for this purpose -- or even that it's not a good thing. However, we should be aware of what it means and potentially the impact should it go away (temporarily or permanently).

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 18 Oct 2007 @ 7:48am

    I believe this is true to a point. However, in this world of information we now live in, it is impossible to remember everything we need to. Before computers, people kept written log books, rolodexes, etc. There has always been information storage in some form or another. Computers just make it so much easier that we tend to cheat.

    I believe that the answer isn't to reject computers as a "second brain" entirely, but rather be realistic about what to rely on them for. For example, there's no way I could remember all the phone numbers for the contacts in my cell phone address book. However, I remember the few most important ones, so if that phone dies or gets lost or stolen, I can use any other phone to get a hold of the people I need. Same thing with PCs. I already remember way too much trivial information, and there's no way I can remember it all. I keep the most important things, or the things I do most often, in my head, and leave the rest on the computer or notes to refer to later as necessary.

    But, I will agree that somebody who is disconnected from his computer and cannot function normally has a serious problem, and needs psychiatric help of some sort. That's about as bad as that commercial where these people are walking down the street, one guy guided solely by his GPS smart phone. Somebody pulls it from his hand, and he stops and looks around with a blank stare, like his brain just got turned off. Then it is given back to him, and he picks right up where he left off. It makes for a good chuckle, but in real life it would be a serious problem.

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