In an Emergency, Will You Know Your Friends’ and Family’s Phone Numbers?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 16 2013 2:30 PM

In an Emergency, Will You Know Your Friends’ and Family’s Phone Numbers?

Boston Marathon runner on cell phone
A runner tries to use his phone after two bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon

Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

In Jeff Friedrich’s dispatch from the Boston Marathon yesterday, he quoted a volunteer named Kathleen Hunt, who was helping runners retrieve their bags near the finish line. “There were runners who couldn’t find their clothes, who didn’t have their phones, who couldn’t find their families,” she said. “It reminded me how important it is to memorize a few phone numbers.”

In the age of the smartphone and dialing by touchscreen, few of us can tick off our loved ones’ numbers on command. (I do, thankfully, remember my parents’ home number, which I’ve dialed thousands upon thousands of times in 30 years.) This has less to do with the faulty memories of modern man than the absence of any day-to-day need to dial by number. As memory champ and Moonwalking with Einstein author Joshua Foer writes, “Once I’d reached the point where I could squirrel away more than 30 digits a minute in memory palaces, I still only sporadically used the techniques to memorize the phone numbers of people I actually wanted to call. I found it was just too simple to punch them into my cell phone.”

Advertisement

Given our dependence on our phones to do the dialing for us, we’re now totally lost without them. There are technological solutions to this conundrum: If you have an iPhone with iCloud activated, you can access your contacts from any computer (or another smartphone) by going to icloud.com. There’s also the low-tech approach: You can—as one Slate staffer does—carry a laminated card in your wallet with the numbers of immediate family and close friends.

And if you want to fight the tides of history and actually embed a series of digits into your brain, there are a bunch of techniques you can use: creating a mnemonic, associating the number with a hummable tune, or replacing someone’s name in your contact list with their phone number, so you have to stare at it every time you dial. There may come a day when you're glad you did.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.