Mind the gap

Netflix knows what you’re looking for

Once I began asking questions about my memory, I started to discover stories, articles, books and TV shows that deal with memory on some level. The most recent example is the 2011 TV series, Black Mirror. I watched an episode last night on Netflix (this article is about technology so the irony that a technology recommended something to me based on my interests is not lost on me).

Black Mirror deals with technology questions and the impact it has on our lives. The first season’s finale is titled 'The Entire History of You'.  The episode’s technology focus is pure science fiction, but not that far-fetched. The characters have a device installed behind their ear. The device is hardwired to their brain and optic nerve. It records everything happening to them as it happens. The footage is then available for instant recall either on a tiny contact lens video screen or on any monitor available (the main character watches a recent meeting in a cab on the screen separating the driver and passenger).

The replays are controlled by a tiny device that is manipulated by only a thumb. There are many disturbing aspects of this episode (the main character uses the technology to inflame his jealousy and ultimately discover his wife’s affair), but the habitual twitching of a character’s thumb combined with the dazed gaze of watching past interactions while the present swirls around him is eerily familiar (think the hunched neck, downcast eyes and flicking thumb of the modern day smart phone user).

It raises an interesting question about memory and technology. In this fictionalized future, everything can be remembered and recalled. It is the Googlefication of the individual (if that’s a word great, if not, you read it here first).

Mind the Gap, a blog about memory and longevity by Jay Mueller.

Does my smartphone make me smarter?

The paradox of the issues that drive Black Mirror is that in each episode the technology cannot overcome our basest reactions. Jealousy, fear, greed, lust and envy all prove more powerful than the technology.

Which leads to the paradox of the smart phone. Is my smartphone making me smarter? Or am I outsourcing my memory? Each year Google handles 2 trillion searches. I’m sure many of these involved information needed at the time and not necessarily required for long term reference. I am equally sure that many of the searches involved what I think of as the memory spot check.

Psychology Today published an article in 2015 titled 'Is your Smartphone Making you Dumb?' It’s fascinating. I also found it equal parts troubling and reassuring.

Troubling because of what it means for our cognitive ability, but reassuring that I’m not alone in thinking my habitual instinct to almost immediately turn to Google to remember something is affecting me. I wrote about some of the things I’m doing to improve my memory in a previous article.  After reading the Psychology Today article I’m adding one more thing to the list: waiting. I’ve started waiting to see if I can recall something before succumbing to the instant search. I’ve been able to do this with varying degrees of success.

When confronted with one of my gaps, ‘I ask myself, can I find this piece of information in me?’ While it takes longer, it’s immensely satisfying when a name, date or event arrives fully formed out of my grey matter fog.

Time: your best friend and your merciless enemy

If you only remember one thing from this article, remember this: your phone is only a tool. A hammer is just a hammer. You will achieve your goal if you use the hammer in the manner for which it is designed. It will become a serious detriment if you start using it to crack yourself in the head.

The Psychology Today article points out the negative relationship between time and phone.

'In addition to splitting our attention, there is strong reason to suspect that frequent smartphone use and the constant connectivity it engenders interfere with memory formation. To transfer information from short-term to long-term memory, the brain requires periods of rest. In a world where every free moment is spent refreshing email or responding to text messages, there are fewer opportunities for long-term memories to form.

There is something deeply ironic about a device designed to improve efficiency and foster connections achieving the exact opposite. In this way, smartphones are emblematic of a bigger issue with the way we use technology: Often, the tools we use to control our lives end up controlling us (author’s emphasis).'

Did you receive a notification of something else demanding your attention while reading this article? What are you going to do when you finish reading this? If you’re reading this on a tablet or monitor, where is your phone? I bet you know the answer to that last question. I bet you know exactly where it is.

Here’s a challenge. Can you work for an hour on something with your phone in another room? Give it a shot. It’s the only way to begin taking back control of the device from the device.

We all face the challenge of ensuring our smartphone is a lifestyle enhancer and not a mental hammer.

Jay Mueller

Jay Mueller is a journalist and radio producer based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter @bad_producer. Send him an email jay.mueller@badproducerproductions.com

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