Second Thoughts on Digital Amnesia

by • November 20, 2015 • Comments (0)


Not long ago, the term “digital amnesia,” swept the internet, warning that reliance on mobile and other digital devices could damage human memory.

The study, commissioned by cybersecurity firm, Kaspersky Labs, discusses the use of mobile devices to outsource our memory. Should we be worried?

Let me just Google that…

In a world where the name of a search engine is a verb, it might be worth taking a look at our growing cultural reliance on mobile. Taken from survey results of 6,000 people in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Benelux, the Kaspersky study polled men and women equally, with a minimum age of 16.

The results are not surprising and reflect the culture of mobile in the United States as well. Consider these points:

Mobile devices store important contact information: Survey participants of all ages stated their smartphones and other mobile devices hold almost all their essential telephone numbers, and then some. While half of adult Europeans in the study could remember the telephone number of their childhood home, they did not know the phone numbers for their children, or their schools. More than half did not know their own workplace phone numbers, and about a third could not remember the phone number of their partner.

It is worth noting the capacity of a smartphone allows us to carry a huge telephone directory with us in our pocket.  The study notes, in our “hyper-connected world people simply have too many numbers, addresses, handles, etc., to remember even if you wanted to.”

It is true people rely on their device to access contact information for people in their lives. Instead of remembering two or three important phone numbers, we now remember two or three important passwords. It is unclear that this constitutes amnesia, rather than convenience.

Smile for the camera: For many, mobile devices are also a handy photo album. In the Kaspersky research, this tendency to “externally store personal memories in the form of pictures carry the risk of dictating which aspects of our past we remember.”  Further, one study author notes, “There also seems to be a risk that the constant recording of information on digital devices makes us less likely to commit this information to long term memory.”  Most adults understand the problem of spending so much time taking pictures, that you miss living your vacation. Unless you are a professional photographer, this issue has existed since cameras were invented.

What used to be a couple of crumpled pictures in a wallet is now video, photographs, and selfies on a mobile device.  We share, remember, and reflect on our images, which are accessible in an instant. Like the forgotten telephone numbers, the only real danger here is the loss of our mobile device, and the priceless data it contains.

The Google effect: Why remember information when you can look it up? The study notes “one in three European consumers is happy to risk forgetting information they can easily find—or find again—online, reinforcing other studies that show how the internet is transforming the way we search for and remember facts.”

At the same time the internet has supplanted libraries as sources of authoritative information, it has created countless information opportunities never held in a single book, or library. Many library and essential book collections and documents have moved online, offering greater access to more people than ever dreamed. Despite decades of prediction otherwise, people continue to buy and read printed books, too.

While the Kaspersky study states 67 percent of consumers say they would make note of something they had found online, another 12 percent said they would never record it, knowing it would always be “out there.”

There is no doubt most people search for facts, figures, and information on the internet, find what they want, and forget it.  With the crushing amount of new information made available every day, it is not such a bad idea to take what you need, and leave the rest.

Buried in the report is an interesting organic SEO nugget. “There are also indications that the internet is changing the kind of things we do consider worth remembering.” More than half of survey respondents did not feel the need to remember information, but they made sure to remember, or mark, where they found the information. These results support the use of authoritative information on websites, apps, and other internet locations. Information hubs remain more important than the transient information traveling through.

Survey participants report the loss of their device would leave them in moods ranging from grief to panic. No doubt. If a significant portion of the world lost internet access, would the rich art of personal conversation be reinvented? You bet.

Mobile devices, with their ability to store and access information are changing the way we live and remember. Is “digital amnesia” something to worry about? No. I wrote earlier about how smartphones and mobile apps are used to bolster memory and cognitive function in middle-aged and older adults. “Digital amnesia” is a good, sticky phrase. But the real message of the Kaspersky report is to highlight the importance of mobile and the need to protect data and capability. Mobile devices are easy to use, and easy to lose. Download pictures, upload to the Cloud, and keep software and security updated.

The Kaspersky study is a snapshot of change that has already occurred. While the research focuses on loss—of information, ability, and human memory—it ignores gains and fails to champion the shape of things to come. Use mobile—explore the world.


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