Digital Dementia (Part 2)

Many of us multitask on the move. Instead of taking a break to walk quietly down a country lane, we pound urban pavements while twittering, poking or texting away. We may feel entertained, but scientists suggest that we may just be wearing our brains down, robbing them of an opportunity to process information.

To make matters worse, we are so hooked on the digital experience that we find it hard to switch off after work. Sixty percent of Americans who own a PDA admit that they check their emails in bed and an Australia survey found that three quarters of corporate executives find it hard to turn off out-of-hours, because of their attachment to smartphones.

Concerned about the impact that this always-on mentality has on its workers, VW in Germany has installed new corporate Blackberry email accounts which automatically turn off when a worker ends his or her working shift. The thinking is that workers won’t feel bound to respond to corporate matters after hours, at least by email.

Meanwhile, in the face of the digital onslaught, many an adult has all but forgotten how to spell, despite the fact that spelling and grammar were important aspects of our schooling. Very quickly, we’ve grown reliant on spell-checking software, predictive text software and machines that finish our words for us, often after we’ve entered just two letters. In many cases, we don’t even need the first letters; we simply speak the word and the machine does the rest.

Of course, as amazing as they are, machines still get such things wrong a lot of the time. Voice activation has certainly come a long way from the days when ‘recognise speech’ turned into ‘wreck a nice beach’. Yet the sharper the technology gets – or promises to be – the higher our expectation and the greater the frustration we feel when machines make mistakes, or breakdown altogether.

What’s happening to our spelling has already occurred with regard to arithmetic. Many of us have largely forgotten how to do even quite basic sums - or we’ve lost confidence in our ability to do so. To be honest, we can’t be bothered anyway. A modern smartphone has far more built-in computing power than did any of the Apollo spacecraft and tablets can eat five-year-old desktops for breakfast.

These mobile gizmos are becoming virtual extensions of our brains, which perhaps explains why it is so hard for us to switch them off. In the future, they may become real extensions of our brains, wirelessly hooked up to biomechanical devices melded onto the fabric of the human cortex. Fancy a brain upgrade? Here, try this biochip for size.

This may be a way off, but digitisation is already leaving many of us over-reliant on bits of silicon, while parts of our brains are under-exercised and our emotional perspective is skewed.

A number of international studies have shown that when young adults are separated from their digital devices, they feel isolated and disoriented. This isn’t limited to the young. When five million US BlackBerry users were denied service due to a regional outage in 2007, psychologists reported a spike in calls from people suffering from feelings of disorientation and isolation.

As we relegate different aspects of thought and deliberation to machines, what is happening to the mental ‘muscles’ we would once have used for those functions?

What’s more, if we stop exercising the parts of the brain associated with basic maths, will this not also impact our general skills in logical, sequential and strategic thought, all of which are central to processing numbers?

By relying increasingly on number-crunching gadgets, will we compromise our abilities to weigh up cause and effect, compare pros and cons, or map and compare future scenarios? These are vital to problem-solving and decision-making. Such questions are far from resolved; they probably deserve a long-term study of their own.

In the wake of digitisation, we are also hurtling at binary speed toward a fully cashless society. 

Cash has, in a sense, been under threat since Diners Club introduced the first universal credit card in 1950. Not long after that, some pundits started predicting the imminent end of coinage, followed by paper money. Yet for all the success of ubiquitous credit and debit cards, cash has clung on – until now.

The emergence of the app-driven, Cloud-connected smartphone – and the fierce user loyalty these machines provoke – may finally sound the death knell for coinage and paper money. These multi-faceted devices provide finance companies and retailers with a hot new way to hook us on digital cash.

Web-driven phones have three great advantages over cards.  They have keys, they have transmitters with good range and they have enough memory and power to handle big processes and software for encryption and accounting.  As long as the software is secure – which is by no means certain in the age of the hackable Cloud - app-driven phones are the ultimate banking and buying technology, because they’re so convenient for the user.

Why bother rifling through the assorted credit and debit cards in your wallet, remembering PIN-codes or storing messy paper receipts, when the all-purpose phone handset can perform all these functions and more? What’s more, you can dispense with juggling a score of monthly statements, receipts and invoices. They will all morph into a single Cloud-based account which is conveniently linked to your phone account and hosted on your Facebook or Google server.

PayPal, the leading digital banking service, is launching 20 new services this year that will allow us to perform everyday purchases without the need for either cash or cards. Everything can be done using a phone. Visa is rolling out its V.Me project, which does much the same thing.

Meanwhile, retailers and service providers are moving toward wave-and-pay tools, in everything from supermarkets to railway stations.  The London Olympics will feature wave-and-pay facilities, some of them based around phone apps.

Of course, for big business there’s a huge advantage in all this: phones encourage people to spend more, sometimes without thinking. Large corporations are not necessarily setting out to drive up personal debt, but this may well be the result for millions of consumers...