My son’s iPhone died recently, and it was sort of like losing a limb for him. He emailed us to inform us about it and to let us know he would be going to the Apple store to see if the phone could be saved. My husband asked him to borrow a friend’s phone and give us a call to talk about the options should the phone not be salvageable. The only wrinkle was that our son has no idea what our phone numbers are.
This is one of the casualties of the digital age. No one memorizes other people’s phone numbers. And no one keeps a paper address book so that they can retrieve the number even when their phone is on the fritz. Instead, a dead phone means the total loss of all the contacts stored within it. I pride myself on memorizing numbers easily. Just ask me to rattle off my credit card or drivers license number. But even I struggled when my other son got a new phone number through his work and I tried to memorize it. Since the number was stored in my iPhone contacts, I didn’t really need to dial (antiquated term!) the number. So it took me months and deliberate effort to commit my son’s number to memory.
This difficulty with phone numbers is not the only loss that has come with the digital age. Our dependence on technology has affected other parts of our lives. Take, for instance, the art of writing. The vast majority of people never put pen to paper, choosing instead to send emails, type essays on the computer, or jot notes electronically in their cell phones. I can foresee a future in which pens and writing implements actually become obsolete. Yet research has shown that people retain information better when they physically write it down on paper. (Just ask any shopper who left her grocery list at home on the counter!)
Our ability to gather information has also become dependent on technology. Without the internet, most people wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do research. We wouldn’t be able to find phone numbers and addresses of local businesses. Some of us would have a hard time getting our shopping done. My cousin went back to college in the not too distant past to get a bachelors degree in a new subject. When called upon to do a research project with a small group, my cousin went old school. She gathered a number of books on the subject, sat her group down, and had them sift through the information in the books to solve the hypothetical problem posed in the assignment. The small group of Millennials were a bit dumbfounded by this method, but most agreed that they got a lot out of searching for information in this way.
Advances in technology are beneficial to productivity and often make life easier for us. I’m grateful for all the ways technology has helped me perform household chores, kept me warm or cool depending upon the season, and made it easier to find what I’m looking for. But just as the use of calculators made people forget how to do basic arithmetic, the use of computers (including those mini ones in our pockets) has caused some of our basic mental and physical skills to atrophy. I think a balance between the old and the new would be a helpful way to get the best of both worlds.
Maybe E.T. could have phoned home more easily if he had just written down the number!