The World Before Smartphones

My memory isn't what it used to be.

Neither is yours.

That's because we both have smartphones. 

And, to borrow the current popular construction: Smartphones are eating our memory.

My first "smartphone" was a Nokia N95. I was given one by Nokia at PopTech! 2007. I was thrilled. 

I'd owned cell phones before, of course, going back to early car phones in the mid 80s. They were great. Expensive. Unreliable. But, great.

But, the N95 was the first device that transformed me into a mobile-connected production unit.

First off, it had a camera. A good camera. That meant for the first time in my life I had a camera with me at all times and could take photos of anything I wanted.

That camera also recorded video.

That changed everything for me.

I'd started video blogging on YouTube in August, 2006 and was increasingly fascinated by the social potential of video as a person-to-person communication platform. But, video blogging in those days meant lugging around a sizable camera and other gear.

Now, I had a video recording rig in my pocket all the time.

But, that was just the beginning.

What I also now had was instant, always-on access to the Internet. By 2007, Google had already become an important part of everyone’s life and now I had all that Googly search power in my pocket. 

That changed everything.   

Let's pause for a moment to think about a well-known psychological reality: convenient, reliable sources of information are rapidly appropriated into our cognitive repertoire. Our brains love to offload tasks that require close attention to simpler, less demanding methods and devices. 

I am, like you, a “cognitive miser.” 

As cognitive misers, our brains look for the simplest, most economic thought processes or operations that provide us with the information or answers, we need to function everyday. The cognitive miser model explains our extensive use (despite their shortcomings) of shortcuts, rules of thumb, or heuristics, to solve problems and make decisions. 

The tendency to offload complex cognitive tasks to economically superior alternatives accounts for everything from the invention of writing to alarm clocks. Which is what made the smartphone so popular. Our cognitive miserly brains never had a “friend” like the smartphone before. 

For all practical purposes we now all carried around all the world’s accumulated knowledge in our pockets, where, at a moment’s notice we could find answers to teasy questions like, “Who was the voice of Boba Fett?” (originally, Jason Wingreen, later Jeremy Bulloch) or, “When did Eddie Mathews break in to the big leagues?” (April 15,  1952). 

Before smartphones, answering these questions was highly cognitively expensive. After, trivial. 

Suddenly, over night, we were endowed with more cognitive power than any of the billions of people who’d preceded us on Earth.

As the last decade’s unfolded, we’ve become increasingly dependent on our smart devices for this cognitive outsourcing. As misers, we are loathe to spend even a minute trying to agonizingly recall Marilyn Monroe’s first husband’s name when the answer is ready-to-hand through our smartphones. 

This dependency has made some fearful that we are losing our cognitive capabilities though diminished use; that our technology is “dumbing us down.”

And, in some sense, that observation is true. Can you recall your family’s telephone numbers as easily as you did a decade ago? Probably not. Your miserly nature has led to that information being delegated to your smartphone, just as your first electronic calculator enabled you to demote the energy-hogging multiplication tables out of short-term memory.  

Today’s world is dramatically different than the world before smartphones. Less than a decade ago we still had to struggle to remember names, numbers, directions and other brute facts, using up precious cognitive resources that we now can turn to other matters.

And, that’s where robots come in…enabling us to turn energy formerly spent on routine, repeatable tasks towards more uniquely human, creative, fulfilling activities. 

The challenge we now face is to do so, and not turn ourselves into cognitive sloths in the process.

The world before smartphones is gone forever. We now need to use wisely the cognitive freedom they and their successors have given us.

In other words, I need to sharpen up my RoboPsych for the next big adventure.