Deskilling in the Age of Digital Amnesia

How many of the phone numbers of your nearest and dearest can you remember? How about birthdays or postal addresses?

If you suspect it is fewer than you have ever been able to before, there is a very good chance you are right. It’s also possible you are exhibiting a phenomenon known as ‘digital amnesia’ – a phrase coined by cyber-security group Kaspersky Lab to describe forgetting information that
you trust a digital device to store and remember for you.

Last year Kaspersky Lab released an eye-opening study called ‘The Rise and Impact of Digital Amnesia’, which attempted to assess how dependent we have become on our handy, hand-held, high-tech tools.

“Digital technologies are not just transforming the way we live and work; they are changing the way we think, learn, behave – and remember,” stated the study, which found that more than half of the 6000 European adults surveyed could remember the phone number of the house they had lived in when they were ten years old but could not recall the phone numbers of their current workplaces.

One in three of those questioned admitted that they had outsourced their memories to such an extent that they could not even make a telephone call to their partners without looking the number up first. Nine out of ten of those surveyed revealed they were unable – from memory alone – to phone their children’s school.

And when faced with a question, 36 per cent said they would leap online to locate an answer before they even bothered trying to remember whether they already knew the answer. Almost one in four reported that as soon as they had used a fact discovered online they would almost immediately forget it.

Digital amnesia appeared to cut across sex and age barriers, although some of the findings suggested slightly higher numbers among older age groups. A high proportion of ‘digital natives’ appeared to be in denial, given that 40 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 years said that losing the data on their digital devices would cause them immense distress. Even so, they had not bothered backing up the data anywhere else.

Technology and the brain

Dr Maria Wimber, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, suggested the results were somewhat double-edged. On the one hand “there is an argument to be made that looking up information online, instead of trying to recall it ourselves, makes us shallower thinkers,” Wimber told Kaspersky Lab.

That said, given that our brains “clearly have a capacity limit … one could argue that smartphones can enhance our memory, because they store information externally, and thereby free up capacity in long-term memory,” she said. “Forgetting is in no way a bad thing.”

Across the world, scientists are currently trying to work out how our apparent addiction to high-tech gadgets is affecting us by studying everything from what technology is doing to cognitive development in the young to whether adults have started using their smartphones instead of thinking or attempting to puzzle things out (a question to which the answer, so far, seems to be “yes”).

Bob Cooper, a survival expert from Western Australia who has taught wilderness skills for over three decades, believes that people are becoming so dangerously dependent on technology – specifically the use of GPS systems – that they are not only losing what he calls ‘bush-craft skills’ but ‘common sense skills’ as well.

Travellers have no problem using electronic map-readers to find isolated locations, Cooper told ABC News, “but when the thing stops working, people don’t know what to do.”

Some technology writers agree with him, arguing that advances in computing, mechanisation and artificial intelligence are not only making us stupid but potentially miserable as well. Yet in a world where 65 per cent of Americans suspect that most human jobs will be done by robots within 50 years, and where driverless cars appear to be just around the corner, not everybody is quite as concerned.

Virtual reality pioneer Mark Pesce, who is a broadcaster, writer, researcher and futurist, described the enormity of the changes taking place as “a quantum jump in human capability for everyone” in an interview for Australian Popular Science in 2012, during which he stated that the technological advances underway are as “important as the emergence of speech 70,000 years ago”.

Cognitive computers

Quizzed about deskilling and the impact of handing over basic jobs to machines, be they manual labour or problem-solving tasks such as map reading, Pesce notes that “we’re actually doing the opposite – handing over higher-level cognitive functions.”

To prove his point Pesce mentions two ground-breaking IBM computing systems – Watson for Oncology, which is being used by US and Canadian cancer organisations to sift through mountains of medical data to help doctors choose optimum treatments for individual patients, and IBM’s Watson-powered cognitive computer Ross, which specialises in powering through legal research and is capable of learning from its work.

These advancements in technology are extending robotics beyond simple routine-based tasks to dynamic problem solving.

However, Pesce points out, the “lower-level, more physical functions are disappearing at a slower rate because the physical world is harder for a robot to manage than the purely intellectual world of the professions.”

Rebirth of handmade

Perhaps ironically, as our rush towards all things high-tech has accelerated, so has a resurgence of interest in the homemade – as seen in the increased emergence of everything from cheese- and pickle-making weekend workshops to quilting clubs allowing people to learn ‘new’ artisan or practical skills. In other words, a form of ‘reskilling’.

This new wave of arts and crafts has seen interest in knitting and crocheting boom since the beginning of the 21st century, with the Craft Yarn Council (CYC) of America reporting that a third of all US women aged 25 to 35 do either one or the other.

Globally the appetite for artisan goods has exploded as skills that used to be semi-forgotten, and at best thought of as twee, have become seriously cool.

In 2015 alone, around 1.6 million sellers sold more than US$2.39 billion of merchandise to 25 million buyers on, the highest-profile online marketplace for handmade items and vintage objects. The amount is so high that Professor Susan Luckman, an expert in craft from University of South Australia’s Hawke EU Centre, argues “a making renaissance is underway.”

Luckman’s latest book, Craft and the Creative Economy, examines the area’s exponential growth – the new appetite for artisanal goods and the rise of ‘mumpreneurs’, women who set up businesses while also caring for their young children.

“Craft, the handmade and making are currently everywhere,” she observes, describing (which at its launch in 2005 was a pioneer) as the tip of an iceberg when it comes to online trading websites today.

According to Luckman, the high-tech is driving the low-tech. With such a proliferation of websites and online shops, commerce is easy and “the internet means there is much more information about making things … it empowers people to give it a go.”

Handmade items appeal because they are “imbued with touch”, offering “a sense of the ‘authentic’ in an ‘inauthentic’ world,” Luckman observes. She suspects that people crave them for a series of reasons, including nostalgia, yearning for a sense of comfort, a search for the unique and, particularly for those with ethical concerns about how things are made, reassurance in knowing who has created what they are buying.

Much mass production takes place overseas so “this generation … is missing that connection to making,” she says, adding that highly skilled work such as bespoke shoe-making continues to disappear from Australia’s shores.

“This renaissance is going on but ironically at a time when we are threatened with the loss of lots of skills,” says Luckman, describing the experience of creating, and being able to say, “I made that – I did that” as enormously satisfying.

While academics are speculating over whether there is a link between the trends of digital deskilling and the craze for craft – and if so whether it has anything to do with our anxieties over the speed with which modern life is changing – one thing is clear: the future is what we make it.

So while you’re mulling over that why not jump online, download a pattern, and start knitting yourself a cosy little case for your shiny smartphone?

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