Recently, our babysitter was struck by a car just a few steps from our front door. Luckily, none of her injuries were life threatening. Her cell phone, however, was brutalized beyond recognition.
Before heading to the emergency room, I climbed into the back of the ambulance where I asked her if she wanted me to call her boyfriend. She said she did, but she didn’t know his telephone number. It was lost along with her now obliterated cell phone, and she had never committed the number to memory.
At first, I was shocked. How could she possibly not know her own boyfriend’s telephone number? It must have been the trauma of being hit by a car. But then I thought about it for a few seconds, and I realized that – without pulling out my iPhone – I don’t know her telephone number either.
I remember my friend Mordy’s numbers (both lines) from when we were eleven. But I can’t even tell you the first three digits of the most important telephone number of my adult life. For that matter, I have no idea what Mordy’s current number is …
What’s the difference? Now my cell phone is programmed to remember this kind of data for me. My head was once filled with bits and pieces of information like phone numbers, to-do lists, and addresses. I’ve ceded that responsibility to technology.
Last summer, I forgot my friend Norman’s birthday. We’ve known each other since elementary school. He has the same birthday as my mother-in-law. It’s an easy one. I’ve never missed his birthday. Until now.
Norman is not a big web user and he’s not in my stream. Over the last couple years, I’ve gotten used to letting Facebook, Twitter and online calendars remind me of what I need to know. My reliance on that stream is starting to eat away at things that have been in my memory for decades.
And the stream creates information equality where it shouldn’t exist. I post happy birthday messages to people I hardly know and then forget Norman’s altogether. When my brain was in charge, it used to make these kinds of value judgments. The stream doesn’t. It just runs and runs.
My phone tells me numbers, Facebook reminds me of birthdays, my nav system gives me directions, Google tells me how to spell, my bookmarks remind me of what I’ve read, my inbox tells me who I’m having a conversation with – my mind has been distributed across several devices and services.
My head is in the cloud.
Now, after a few years of this, I realize that when I look up from the screen I know almost nothing. And maybe that would be fine if the absent phone numbers and upcoming dates were freeing space for deeper and more introspective thought. But I sense that my addiction to the realtime stream is only making room for the consumption of a faster stream.
Norman, you need to join Facebook or I may never wish you a happy birthday again.
Mordy, if I ever lose my cell phone, our connection will be lost forever – unless your family’s 1977 phone numbers are still forwarding to you.
And just in case our babysitter ever has another emergency, I’ve programmed her boyfriend’s number along with 911 into my iPhone.
To the rest of you, Happy Birthday. Hope I’m close.