Future Tense

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.”

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.

Read more on Slate about the Boston Marathon bombing.