The excessive reliance on technological crutches

The items I carry (1996 version)

Pen, paper, mind maps

In this picture you can see a rather faithful reconstruction of the items I used to carry everyday in my backpack during my university years, around 1996. I was quite fond of ink and ink-related writing tools. On that ring binder I used to take notes on white sheets of paper (I hated ruled or squared paper), and draw during the most boring classes. In that same binder there was also an agenda/planner section I created, tailored to my needs. The calendar & organiser features provided by the Sharp IQ-7300 M Multilingual databank were nice, but inserting and updating items like appointments, reminders and the like was a bit awkward and impractical for my tastes and habits (the fact that the device had an ABCDEF keyboard layout didn’t help in the least).

Pen and paper have always had an important, deep-seated presence in my life. The earliest childhood memories I can recall involve writing and drawing tools: pens, pencils, crayons, papers and notebooks. These tools have brought me two invaluable gifts (for lack of a better word): the passion for writing, and a good memory.

For me, writing things down (on paper, not typing them in a computer), has always been the key to organising stuff in my head, and to remember bits of information. It has wired my brain in a way that, for simple-to-medium memory and mind mapping activities, I can usually do without pen and paper. This is hardly rocket science, and I guess it’s a common learning technique. Still, I have often surprised people with my ability to remember dozens of different phone numbers, addresses, or the names of all the new people I used to meet at parties or other gatherings. “No, I’m neither an autistic nor an idiot savant,” I used to joke, “I just have good memory.”

For more complex tasks, I still like writing things down and drawing mind maps; my faithful Newton MessagePad is a nice alternative when I don’t have pen and paper at hand, or when a particular ‘map’ has to be preserved electronically and not just discarded once I acted on it. This physical, low-tech approach is still the most effective for me, especially when I’m writing creatively. Some of my story plots can be convoluted, or sometimes I need to keep a bird’s-eye view of all the relationships among the characters in a novel. All the software applications I’ve tried don’t have the same immediacy as writing a map down on an A4 or A3 sheet. I’ve also tried the iPad + stylus approach: it’s a bit better, but still not optimal.

There’s an app for that, but I don’t really need it

But let’s go back to my good memory. Sometimes people ask me what’s my favourite calendar app (on the Mac, on iOS), and when I say that I don’t use calendar apps, some of my interlocutors think I’m pulling their leg, other react with comments along the lines of “Oh well, evidently you’re not that busy.” (Quite the contrary, actually.) Same goes for to-do apps. What’s my favourite? None, really. Not because the existing to-do apps are not good enough for me, but because I don’t need a to-do app in the first place. At this point people tease me: “Sure, you remember everything you have to do for any given day, don’t you?” Well, yes I do. I also remember all the passwords tied to my most important accounts and services. I have developed a system so that I can create passwords that are both memorable and strong enough. (I have also written them down as a failsafe, of course.) So I don’t really need applications like 1Password.

Save it somewhere and forget about it

The point of all this is obviously not to show off my abilities. It’s to emphasise the importance of keeping one’s memory well-trained, and the importance of organising information (and its intake) in a way that doesn’t make one too dependent on devices and machines. When I mention this subject, I’m either labelled a Luddite, or I usually get the objection that “devices and machines are meant to relieve our minds of boring tasks and the burden of remembering dull information, et cetera, so that our minds can focus on more important, interesting stuff.”

The fact is, I don’t think this “save it somewhere and forget about it” approach is being that beneficial to our minds. It’s the ‘forget about it’ part that bothers me, of course, because this approach doesn’t encourage either the retention or the organisation of information into something systematic that eventually becomes knowledge. Instead, this approach encourages forgetfulness and delegation. When something goes wrong, e.g. you’re unable to retrieve the information — or sometimes even the ability[1] — you delegated to a device or application, you get stuck and at times you even ‘short-circuit.’ The other night I was talking with a friend, and he told me how a common acquaintance was facing a bit of an emergency, his phone had died and had to use another phone to call his sister and brother-in-law, but he blanked out when he realised he didn’t remember their phone number. Thankfully their landline phone number was listed in the telephone directory, and he eventually got to call them. (Though admittedly he wasn’t sure about their exact street number, either.) We’re talking about a 25-year-old guy who doesn’t remember somewhat important information about close relatives.

If you think this is an isolated case, it’s not. At least according to the (anecdotal — I know) evidence I’ve been collecting lately. In an informal poll via email, I’ve asked my youngest contacts, acquaintances, friends, to answer a few questions, such as:

  • Do you own a smartphone and make extensive use of it?
  • Do you use to-do apps and reminder apps on a regular basis?
  • Can you share some examples of the most common reminders and to-dos?

 

The demographic is people in the 19-28 age range. So far, 25 people have replied with useful data. The results are interesting and seem to prove my point:

  • 23 out of 25 people own a smartphone. The other two just own a feature phone.
  • 22 out of the 23 smartphone owners use to-do apps and reminder apps regularly.
  • The sheer majority of reminders and to-dos involve extremely simple and mundane things/tasks like “Remember to buy water, milk and bread on the way home,” “Remember to ask X about her exam,” “Go to driving school at 6 PM,” “Phone dad,” “Pick up Y at school” [where Y is the little brother], “Need haircut,” “Plan weekend trip,” and so on.

 

When I say that the results seem to prove my point, I mean that these people, young people, seem to heavily rely on their devices to be reminded of carrying out even the most trivial stuff — things I find hard to believe one could forget otherwise. I can understand entering dentist’s appointments on their calendar, or other events that are scheduled to happen in a relatively distant future. One may indeed forget about a medical exam (the exact date and the exact hour) when it is in six-seven weeks from now. But setting up a reminder to call your dad or go to your little brother’s elementary school to pick him up? Really? Are people this detached from things and other people they should care about? And what about those reminders to have their hair cut or that they need to plan the trip for the weekend? I wonder what would happen without such reminders: would this person realise with horror, Friday night, that he or she has to go on a trip the following morning and they don’t know what to do or where to go? I would be less surprised if the demographic were people in their sixties.

Among other things pertaining to the upcoming Windows 8.1 update, in this video Joe Belfiore (Corporate VP of Microsoft Windows Division) talks about Cortana, Microsoft’s new personal digital assistant. At about 5:12, Belfiore mentions a feature called ‘people reminders’ where he instructs Cortana as follows: Next time I speak with my sister, remind me to ask her about her new dog. Now, on the one hand I’d lie if I said this isn’t a cool feature; on the other I can’t help but hope that only impossibly busy or really forgetful people will use it… or perhaps people who (to use this very same example) really don’t care much about their sister since they don’t even bother to keep in mind she got a new dog.

Technological crutches

I’m not saying that all these applications, services, personal digital assistants and the like — which are designed to assist us in various ways and capacities — are useless or should be avoided. I’m merely pointing out how I find a bit alarming that young people, with supposedly healthy and highly functioning brains, seem to rely on such technological crutches a little too much and probably more frequently than they should. Out of metaphor, you use real crutches after you suffered an injury, not pre-emptively just because you want to prevent one.

Again, I appreciate the technology and it’s great that it exists because there are people out there who really need the assistance it can provide. But I fear that a lot of other people are using these technological crutches just because they exist, therefore developing a certain ‘mental laziness’ that can’t be good in the long term. One can argue that, since the technology is here to stay, these ‘mentally lazy’ people will just keep taking advantage of such crutches and that’s the way it’s going to be; with humans becoming increasingly more dependent on devices, machines and technology (smart cars, smart homes, wearable devices, etc.) for all kinds of things — some of which, come on, are perfectly manageable and have always been.

Yes, we definitely live in interesting times. My hope is that all this technology that should make our lives easier won’t end up making our minds also dumber in the process.

 


  • 1. I know people who apparently have put all their sense of direction in the hands of sat-nav systems and GPS-based apps, judging by how they’re basically helpless without such devices.

 

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!