american society, ruminations

Technology and Trivia

It’s not unlike a mosquito constantly buzzing near your ear, this idea that we’re killing ourselves with technology. Everyday, it seems, we hear with disdain about people who don’t know their own phone number, don’t know their friend’s number, don’t know how to drive across town without GPS navigation. These things, we’re told, are proof that civilization and intelligence are in decline. That the younger you are the more likely you are to be helplessly inept and unwise.

David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, recently seemed to address this “outsourcing” of our brains, but I couldn’t tell if he liked the idea or not. He says:

Memory? I’ve externalized it. I am one of those baby boomers who are making this the “It’s on the Tip of My Tongue Decade.” But now I no longer need to have a memory, for I have Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia. Now if I need to know some fact about the world, I tap a few keys and reap the blessings of the external mind.

Personal information? I’ve externalized it. I’m no longer clear on where I end and my BlackBerry begins. When I want to look up my passwords or contact my friends I just hit a name on my directory. I read in a piece by Clive Thompson in Wired that a third of the people under 30 can’t remember their own phone number. Their smartphones are smart, so they don’t need to be. Today’s young people are forgoing memory before they even have a chance to lose it.

Now, you may wonder if in the process of outsourcing my thinking I am losing my individuality. Not so. My preferences are more narrow and individualistic than ever. It’s merely my autonomy that I’m losing.

Brooks seems to alternate between sincere love for this new state of affairs–and the female voice of his car’s GPS system–and cynical dislike for the lack of “autonomy”–whatever that means.

This “lost autonomy” is, like almost all conventional wisdom, a grave overstatement of the direction we’re moving. Technology has indeed outsourced some things, but they’re hardly important.

Before I begin sounding like someone advocating ignorance–which we know I would never do–let’s be clear. If a healthy person didn’t know how to breathe, eat, walk, or tie a shoe without technology, I would be gravely concerned. So too if they forgot where they lived, how to get there, or how to direct people to it. But these things–perhaps we can call them the essentials–are not being forgotten.

Telephone numbers and directions to that little restaurant on the other side of town (though I admit that the latter depends on the size of town) are trivia. Memorizing telephone numbers, like Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, passwords, lock combinations, and maybe even birth dates, is only something needed for those without easy access to that information. The digits in all of these things–again, maybe not birthdays–are essentially random and unimportant.

A telephone number is merely the proper combination of random numbers that gets you what you really want, talking to a familiar voice. So too are credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, and passwords only shorthand ways to secure the aspects of yourself that need safeguarding–money, identity, and data in these cases.

Were we to develop a secure and simple ways to use and access these things, the triviality of the strings of digits would become all the more clear. I’d rather like having my voice or fingerprint substituted for all the digits I now have to either remember or find on my (metaphorical) BlackBerry. If saying your name meant I could get you on the phone, there would be absolutely no need for my knowing your phone number.

Technology, Google, Wikipedia, and TiVo are not making us the helpless automatons that Brooks and others seem to believe. Certainly, if one chooses to submit to the Borg–pardon the Star Trek reference–they may, but technology hardly requires our submission to some universal mind. It’s hardly forcefully pressing us into giving up individual consciousness the way the Borg were known to.

Instead, it allows we privileged few–with access to the internet and the newest gadgets–to forget the trivia we never wanted to memorize in the first place. And I, for one, am glad for that.

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3 thoughts on “Technology and Trivia

  1. I agree – when someone has memorized Pi to the umpteenth decimal, I’m not impressed.

    What you forgot to mention, though, is that by relying on technology to help us with the daily minutia, we are freeing our brains for duties that would make a blackberry self-destruct.

    Suddenly we have access to information on a level unimaginable even fifteen years ago, and our society is benefiting from it.

    Technology – while it makes us all a little forgetful – will allow us a depth of knowledge beyond our ancestors.

  2. That’s an interesting point, and one I’m thinking about.

    You’re certainly right that technology can allow us easier access to a much greater depth of information, but I’m not sure that the digitization of trivial information is directly linked to it. It seems like it probably does give us more time, so if we choose, we can use it to know more truly useful stuff.

    So, I guess you’re right. It’s both a good point (that I’m slightly embarrassed to have missed), and a welcome innovation.

  3. i can say a few things right off-hand …

    one, i used to know all of my family members’ birthdays. well i still know them, but a day doesn’t register because of its number anymore. i also used to know all their phone numbers, but i recently had to scour through old phone bills and try to find the right matches on numbers to determine what they were. people who i might have no other way of reaching unless they called me on a new cell phone that my wife didn’t drop in the toilet.

    today, i actually had to bring a credit card with me so that i could give a refinancing guy the number. i used to know that shit off-hand. and it definitely has to do with my dependence on technology remembering things for me.

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