Commentary

I'll Tell You What This Is About - Just As Soon As I Look It Up

In 2013, American Airlines handed out more than 8,000 iPads to pilots to replace some 35 pounds of paper manuals required in cockpits. Said AA proudly, "Altogether, 24 million pages of paper documents have been eliminated.” But on Tuesday, the app crashed. This apparently only affected “a few dozen” of the airline’s flights, but the crash of the app comes in the same month that a U.S. watchdog warned of the possibility of in-flight WiFi being used to hack into the avionics system of a plane.

I am not so sure I worry about airborne WiFi hackers as much as the mental picture of pilots frozen with indecision because they can't access an iPad app. I like to think my pilots have pretty much memorized how to run their planes from those thousands of flying hours they brag about -- and in an emergency they work from instinct and training, and don't look at one another and say "Let's take a look at the app."

This only helps reinforce the idea that as technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, we rely on its ubiquity and have stopped learning. Years ago, you knew the home address and phone number of nearly all your friends. No more, because they are both a tap away on your phone (or car GPS). My wife has had a mobile number for over a decade. I still don't know it when I am filling out those "who to call in an emergency" forms.

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When I got in the publishing business back in the Cretaceous Era, everyone on the State side of the company could tell you the demographic makeup of the audience of our Newsweek, and how it compared to Time and U.S. News, or a prime-time show on the big three networks. We knew the ad rates, the ad sizes, the frequency discounts, even the closing dates for ads. You remembered them by learning them in case they came up over lunch or on a phone call.

These days you can get the same information out of your pocket -- or if you are really cool, on your wrist. But it is one and done. You don't learn it. You retrieve it, perhaps send it, but certainly don't learn it.

I have absolutely no idea on what days or times my favorite TV shows air (currently “The Americans” and “American Crime”) because I use technology to automatically tape them. I couldn't even tell you on which networks they appear.

Perhaps you would argue this is progress, that I should use my brain for more important things than phone numbers, ad rates and air dates. And I would agree, but I suspect there is more to this than just the partitioning of grey matter.

A study published four years ago by professors at Columbia University, Harvard and the University of Wisconsin found that the widespread use of search engines and online databases has affected the way people remember information. The results of four other studies suggested that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers — and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself, and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.

The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves. This type of memory leads to the tendency to rely on family, friends, co-workers, and reference materials (including and especially the Internet) to recall and store information for you.

This may not be a big deal in your day-to-day life — but clearly the AA pilot app experience suggests otherwise.

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