The Computer as a Crutch

The Computer as a Crutch

The Computer as a Crutch

Once I knew a man who learned the whole of his personal telephone book by heart. He set out to memorize the telephone numbers of his hundreds of acquaintances, and discovered, to his surprise, that he had a natural ability for it. From the time he made that discovery, he no longer had a need for a phone book. I’m at the other end of the spectrum – I’m one of those people who can’t survive without a diary. I find it difficult to understand how I ever managed to function without a diary. I remember how, on more than one occasion, I missed deadlines, forgot about meetings, and lost telephone numbers. Years of this torture passed until I finally decided – I have to get a real diary: a big one, with a faux leather binding, one page per week, and with a list of contacts at the back. It really helped. The diary was normally on my desk, but I would take it everywhere with me in my briefcase. Every day I would open it, leaf through it, keep track of what was expected of me that day, write in appointments and assignments, and delete others. When someone wanted to arrange a meeting with me, or asked me to do something, I would say, “Let me open my diary.”

This all changed in 2000, when I encountered my first smartphone – the Handspring.

It was clumsy, with a black and white screen, and I had to practice writing on the screen with its special stylus. And woe to me if I lost it, because then I wouldn’t be able to manage my daily routine. Nonetheless, it was an enormous relief to transfer my contact list, appointments and assignments to the computerized diary. At the time, I was product manager for a digital music company in New York. I was so happy that this wonderful device also helped me navigate my way around the big city with the aid of a map, and through the maze of the subway with the aid of navigation software. I was in heaven.

But on the second day of my honeymoon with the device, the battery ran out. This happened just as I was getting off a subway train, on the way to an important meeting, while I was looking at the subway application which showed me the platform and time that I had to catch my next train. Oh, no! I hastened to the nearest telephone booth, and inserted a quarter, to call and let them know that I would be late – but then it hit me: I couldn’t remember any of the telephone numbers that were                                                         locked up in the now silent wonder-machine.

Years have passed, but some things have not changed. For example, my iPhone’s battery life is still very short. When it comes to batteries, there is no Moore’s Law – battery life does not double every decade. And if you think that the previous sentence is just me trying to be witty, here’s a link to a learned article, straight from Scientific American.

And although batteries are not a fun matter, especially for those whose batteries have just run out – the idea that I want to raise here is more serious: although years have passed, we have not been weaned, even slightly, from our willingness to use technology as an aid for those with poor memories. Why remember the multiplication table, or learn to calculate with an abacus, or pen and paper, when a calculator can work out whatever price discounts or salary increases we need to know? Why remember the bus timetable, the capital cities of faraway counties, the tasks we promised to carry out, the telephone numbers of our friends? Is technology helping us to learn something – or merely making it easier for us to forget?

In my next post – a slightly more optimistic side to the answer.