We are all, I think, familiar with the idea that modern technology has managed to degrade our abilities to do things that we used to be able to do and now no longer need to. The most common casualty of this for most people, I think, is the ability to easily remember phone numbers. I used to know phone numbers for at least a couple dozen people at any given time, and right now I know four– mine, my parents’ home line, which has been their number for my entire life, my dad’s work phone number for some reason, and on a good day, my wife’s, which keeps getting interfered with by something else and I can only recall with some difficulty. It’s just not necessary any longer to commit random strings of ten or seven numbers to memory. Could we recapture this ability if we needed to? Sure. Our brains haven’t actually degraded, there’s just a very specific skill that we used to need that we don’t anymore, and so we don’t have it.
I got caught by surprise by something this morning, though. I was at my mom and dad’s house and the land line rang and I answered it. And it took me a few seconds longer than it probably should have to realize that it was my brother on the other end of the line, especially since he 1) recognized my voice, 2) commented on how he was surprised that I was there to answer the phone, and 3) referred to Mom and Dad as “Mom” and “Dad.” For a split second I thought he was one of my older cousins who it would not be completely unreasonable to hear use those words, and then the world kind of snapped back together around me and I realized what was going on and felt a little stupid.
Thing is, though, when was the last time I needed to recognize someone’s voice over the phone? It basically never happens any more. I see who’s calling before I answer the phone to begin with– and, for me at least, if I don’t recognize the number of the person calling I don’t answer the phone. So this scenario where someone calls me and just starts talking and I need their voice to tell me who they are just never happens any longer.
I mean, it was my brother. I should have recognized his voice, obviously, and I’m going to blame a combination of my head being in a weird place at the time and my first time being on a land line in a while for my sudden weird phonagnosia, which is a word I just learned. But still. Before cell phones a solid majority of my phone calls didn’t involve anyone saying their name; folks would just start talking and we’d know who it was. That doesn’t happen anymore. Makes me wonder what the next ability that I have now that I won’t need in twenty years will be.
Probably something involving surviving in a world with electricity and air conditioning, because climate change will have ensured the collapse of society, but hey! It could be something else, right?