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Ready access to information causes digital amnesia

Kaspersky Lab UK : 27 November, 2015  (Technical Article)
Kaspersky Lab researches global attitudes towards information retention and the easy availability to digital memory sources
Ready access to information causes digital amnesia

Australians, Americans and the Brits do it in a hurry, while the French and the Germans are prepared to take their time.  No, not the annual race to the sun loungers by the pool, but the way in which different countries look for answers to questions. It used to be simple: you had a bit of a think, asked someone, or looked it up in a book.  The arrival of the internet changed all that.

We recently conducted a study into how consumers use devices and the internet to remember information, and uncovered the phenomenon of Digital Amnesia: the experience of forgetting information you trust a digital device or the internet to remember for you – whether that’s the phone number of your partner or a list of the major rivers of the world.

Now a closer look at the findings suggests that people don’t offload the job of remembering simply because they can, or even because they need to – they do it because they are too impatient to search their memories for the answer.

There are some interesting differences between regions.  These differences could be shaped by obvious factors such as variable internet access or by more subtle ones such as educational conditioning and culture.

For example, when faced with a question, the Brits are twice as likely as the French and Germans to head online for the answer before trying anything else (52% compared to 25% and 28% respectively). The Spanish, Italians, Dutch and Belgians fall somewhere in between.

It’s the same picture when it comes to remembering the online answer once found. A third of UK respondents say they would forget the information as soon as they’d used it, compared to just 19% of the French and 13% of Italians.

Interestingly, the results for the US and Australia almost exactly match those for the UK, while people in India – and to a lesser extent, Malaysia – are more likely to mirror the behaviour seen on mainland Europe.  For example, just a third (31%) of Indians would head online first and only 14% would be happy to forget the fact afterwards.

What lies behind these variations? The most obvious influencer is likely to be the availability, reliability and reach of internet access.  The UK, US and Australia generally have advanced, high capacity, and resilient networks.  This means that users will have grown accustomed to always-available internet connectivity – and by extension online information - and they will have adapted their behaviour accordingly.

In regions such as India, the same does not apply.  Although the number of internet users and the introduction of next-generation networks continue apace, there is not the same universal consistency.  This could be driving a tendency for users to mentally ‘back-up’ any facts found online.  With internet coverage in Germany also somewhat unreliable in places, the same factor could be helping to shape those results.

Culture and education are more complex but equally powerful influencers.  Many parts of mainland Europe and emerging markets have traditionally had a more conservative approach to learning, with a stronger emphasis on knowledge exchange rather than problem-solving, particularly when compared to some Anglophone nations.  In other words, American, Australian and UK consumers could simply be less used to memorising facts for later recall and therefore be less inclined to do so.

There are no doubt many other factors at play. However, regardless of culture or even internet penetration, this urge for the fastest possible access to information, combined with a reluctance to remember it afterwards, is seen everywhere to some extent and has far-reaching implications for the security of the devices people increasingly depend on.

Impatience is contributing to a reluctance to invest time in protecting data, securing online accounts and devices with strong passwords and running data back-ups, or in checking whether websites and online files are safe before accessing them.  This leaves devices and data vulnerable to attack and damage, and users exposed to the risk of losing forever the memories, images and information they have stored externally.

Digital Amnesia is a natural adaptation to the capability of technology. Its triggers will differ across the world.  But on a small planet where 3.2 billion people – just under half the global population – are online; where 47% will own an Internet-enabled mobile device by the end of 2015; and where the average attention span has fallen to just eight seconds, it is not surprising that many adults are simply too impatient to remember facts when what they want is just a click away.  Until the day they wake up and discover it’s not.

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