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Nancy Colier

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Are Smartphones Replacing Human Memory?

Posted: 01/18/12 01:06 PM ET

This weekend I invited a relative to our home for lunch. Ten minutes after the time she was to arrive, I was greeted by the familiar chimes that signal text messages and voice mails awaiting. My guest sounded desperate, reporting that she had replaced her old smartphone with a new model and had not yet transferred the information. Despite having been here many times, she had no idea where we lived. She had exited the train at the wrong stop, remembering a pre-smartphone address, and was now wandering the streets waiting for my text. She was in fact quite close to our apartment, but recognized none of the landmarks that might point her in the right direction.

I too recently drove to a place that I have visited many times before. As I had no internal memory of the route, I diligently obeyed what my iPhone commanded, and did not notice when my master navigator sent me in the wrong direction. I ended up lost, both internally and externally.

Years ago, Thoreau wrote about the potential effects of our reliance on clocks as a replacement for noticing where the sun is on the horizon. Today, most young people have no idea that the time of day is related to where the sun is sitting in the sky. As far as where north, south, east and west are, forget about it. We cannot figure out the time of day by the sun -- that may not be a disaster, but we have lost the awareness that a link between the two even exists. Time is simply a number that appears on our smartphone's home screen, and has been removed entirely from its relationship with nature and the universe as a whole.

When you glance around the streets of New York, most people are staring into a small screen. Few are gazing up at other people, the sky, the buildings, flowers or anything else. We are not noticing where we are, not aware of where we exist in relationship with the world. We are becoming a species that lives inside our isolated pods, disconnected from each other and the physical world, in relationship only with our devices and the reflection of ourselves that they provide.

Why is it important for us to be able to figure out where we are going without our phones? We have phones, right? It is not about being able to get where we are going on the days when we forget our devices, but rather the meaning of noticing and being awake to our environment and where we are in the present moment.

For one thing, to notice our environment keeps us safe. Paying attention to our world protects us from potential dangers. Crossing the street while texting might keep you from noticing that a cab is speeding towards you. In addition, when we notice what is around us, we are participating in our life, in the now as it happens. When we notice our world, new experiences can occur. We can meet new people, see something that we have never seen, become curious and learn from what is around us.

Furthermore, being aware of our surroundings and where we are in relationship with the world reminds us of our inherent interdependence, and where we fit into this group dance that is life. We notice the other people with whom we share this planet, with whom we might share a smile, a conversation or a shared frustration. We notice the less fortunate lying in doorways, and remember what we have that they do not. We see buildings that other people's fathers and mothers built with their hands. We take in the sky and remember that we are just little dots spinning on one planet in one solar system in one universe among so many others. We observe the trees upon which allow us to breathe. We are aware of stores where food that people from America and other countries have harvested. We see ourselves in relation to all these other life and non-life forms.

If we lose this sense of our interdependence, we will forget altogether that we need each other and our planet to survive. Soon we will believe that we need only our smartphone to survive.

We must remember to look up from our screens, not only to avoid getting hit by oncoming traffic but because of the possibilities that looking up offers, and to remind ourselves that we are a part of a much larger matrix of life upon which we all depend.

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