From the time I was about 13 years old until my late teens, I used to spend part of my summer visiting my favourite grandmother in a small village with a beautiful lake.
We didn’t talk about Alzheimer’s disease much then, but she was clearly losing her memory over those years.
I loved her dearly and she would tell me stories that I could listen to repeatedly (which was a good thing since she told them repeatedly) about growing up in England and emigrating to Canada.
I used to play her piano in the parlour and sometimes she would stop while walking by, look at me curiously and say, "And whose little girl are you?"
I would reply, "Marjorie’s daughter."
Then she would say, "God bless the child. Then carry on with what you are doing."
Having established the appropriateness of my being in her house and at her piano, everything was fine. I might have been hurt that she so frequently looked blankly at me and didn’t know who I was, but it didn’t bother me a bit. What mattered more to me was her essential warmth and goodness.
When she said "God bless the child," I truly felt blessed. It did, however, establish an early interest in theories of memory and cognition, consciousness, the unconscious and personal identity. So it isn’t surprising that I wrote my masters thesis on the topic.
For the past 15 or 20 years, I have periodically read articles about what technology is doing to our sense of our personal identity.
Does the fact that we store many things externally in machines rather than internally in our memories have any impact on who we are or how we see ourselves?
I don’t know.
I do know that I don’t utilize my short-term memory as much as I used to because I carry around a portable electronic calendar, for example, that tells me where I am supposed to be, when, and for what purpose.
I don’t really have a sense that this has changed how I feel about my personal identity or how I relate to others.
But I do think that there is another impact of technology that is more concerning. I frequently feel perpetually distracted and believe that I am not unique in that experience.
About five years ago, when I found myself jet-lagged and awake, busily emailing people in Canada while I sat on a bed in London at 3 a.m. because it was daytime in Canada, I unhooked myself from my BlackBerry and — cold turkey — decided not to have one for a while.
That didn’t last long. And last week while my husband and I were taking a short vacation away from Brandon, I found it nice but not as relaxing as it should have been since I kept checking the infernal email and following up on the messages.
Luckily I have a loving husband who understands such craziness. (Well, maybe understanding is a bit of a stretch, but he is loving and generally tolerant of my nuttiness.)
But here is where I do worry about personal identity, who we are and what we value.
As those of you who read this column know, the focus is ethics and the values we have and express though our actions.
Being our better selves and understanding the nature of the world and our place in it takes reflection and perpetual technology-mediated distraction actively works against such reflection.
My grandmother knew who she was long after she remembered always who I was. She knew her values and she was grounded in her moral sense.
For me to remember such important things, I need sometimes to step back and in an act of self-reflecting thought answer the question, "And whose little girl are you?"
I think we all need to do this at least some of the time.
This means that we should periodically unplug, disconnect and remember what we really think matters in the world.
» Deborah C. Poff, PhD, is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 7, 2012