We’ve Got Your Number

“Use it or lose it” is one of the fundamental precepts of evolutionary biology and it seems that mobiles are having an affect on our short term memory. Mobile Marketing Magazine writes that a survey undertaken my mobile phone back up company, ZYB says that 69% of people can’t even remember 5 numbers stored on their phones.

While¬†such a survey¬†is obviously a little self-serving, as they’re trying to¬†get people to use¬†their free back-up service (59% of people don’t currently use any form of back-up), it does sound about right. Ever since our phones started to store numbers (and this applies¬†to landlines as much as mobiles), we just don’t need to remember numbers any more. I couldn’t tell you my wife’s or my childrens’ mobile numbers, even though I use them practically everyday.

Psychologist, David Moxon is reported as saying

“One of the problems with living in such a ‘high-tech’ society is that our brains become lazy. Cognitive functions such as mathematical and memory processing are frequent casualties in the over-reliant world of calculators, computers and mobile phones.”

A few weeks back I wrote about a similar phenomenon of GPS resulting in the rapid loss of map-reading and navigation skills. I wonder what other skills we’re losing, almost without noticing,¬†as a result of relying on technology.

I was reminded of this quite forcefully, when I was watching a DVD of the classic 1970’s BBC programme “The Survivors”, which I just about remember being broadcast originally, but has remained fixed in my memory ever since. Despite the dodgy fashions, the core theme is remarkably contemporary and is in many ways even more relevant today.

The big idea is that a virus wipes out 99% of the world population, causing a collapse in civilisation, meaning that the survivors have to start all over again. While they can survive in the short term by scavenging, it slowly dawns on them that modern society has basically robbed ordinary people of the skills they need to recreate a primitive form of society. I mean, could you shoe a horse, make a fire without matches, construct a basic dwelling, survive on foraged and hunted food or even grow enough food to feed yourself and your dependents?

It’s a great concept, dreamed up by Terry Nation (who also wrote for Dr Who and created Blake’s 7) and one that echoes today’s issues with threats like Avian Flu, Sars and bio warfare and terrorism on the one hand and an even more heavy reliance on technology on the other. I mean, imagine no Internet as a source of information to recreate all the skills we need to start society again. Sure, we still have books, but as we rely more and more on technology, ironically we’ll become less and less able to find a way back if this kind of disaster did ever happen.

This isn’t really a cheerful subject to be writing about early on a Monday morning and I’m clearly not anti-technology in any way. But I wonder if, like ZYB does for mobile phones, mankind itself needs some kind of back-up strategy just in case the unthinkable did ever happen.


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