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In the below article, Dr. Levitin discusses our reliance on technology and the possibility that it could be making us less intelligent.
Is Technology Making Us Dumb? – Daniel J. Levitin
It’s hard to escape the notion that technology is making us dumb and dumber by the day. Many of us no longer remember birthdays, addresses, we can’t navigate around town because GPS does it for us. We’ve become bad at calculating sums and products in our heads. And important phone numbers? Most of us don’t dial numbers anymore, we use autodial on our cell phones or tap a link from a directory entry that pops up on our screen. Are these conveniences rotting our minds? One need look no further than the widely reported story of the American teenage who witnessed a crime and said she couldn’t call for help because she couldn’t remember the number for 9-1-1. (Note: 911 is the emergency phone number throughout the U.S.)
Pundits such as Nicholas Carr (“The Shallows,” “The Glass Cage”) have laid out a convincing case that automation—big automation like autopilots in planes and GPS in cars—is not only making us dumb but turning the economy topsy-turvy, creating an inexorably increasing “technological unemployment gap” between food-service jobs (at one end) and high-finance jobs (at the other), a result of there being fewer and fewer opportunities for employment at middle-skill levels.
The problem is that, as automation does more for us, we become more reliant on it, more complacent and less skilled. Doctors are missing important diagnoses because of this reliance, pilots’ skills are eroding and our ability to frame questions accurately, to articulate what we’re looking for, is crumbling. According to Google engineers, as their product gets better at delivering quality results, our searches become sloppier and less precise — more dumb.
The interesting question isn’t whether technology has failed us. It has (where’s my jet pack?). The question is whether it is better than the Luddite alternative, a commune in the hills. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. Yes, on Aug. 1, 2012, new trading software at the Knight Capital Group racked up $440 million in losses in 30 minutes. The passengers and crew of US Airways Flight 1549 would have crashed into the Hudson River if Capt. Sullenberger had left it to the autopilot. But this is unfair. We don’t know how many bogus trades have already been blocked by computers or how many air disasters averted. Automation’s saves may well outnumber the problems it has caused. And of course there’s a middle ground: We can make efforts to become the masters of machines rather than the other way around, to use them rather than let them use us.
With any technology, users should be trained—extensively—for what to do when it fails. Even though fully automated flight has been possible since 1914, pilots need to know how to fly manually and to be reminded and retested on manual control. Automation is intrusive because it robs us of certain freedoms. Some of these are more important than others. I don’t need the freedom to change the air-fuel mixture in my automobile — I’m glad that cars no longer have manual chokes and throttle levers. I don’t need the freedom to write my own drivers for a new printer I bought — I’m glad that Dell provides them for me. But in thousands of little ways, we are being blinkered, channeled, programmed, and narrowed. Musicians are a case-in-point: when the first synthesizers came out, they were behemoths that required weeks or months of study and programming and the results were marvelous. Listen to the synthesizer sounds on the Beatles’ Abbey Road or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, unique sounds we had never heard before (and not much since) because they took so much time and care to create. But in the 1980s, when synthesizers began to be mass-produced, popular records all began to sound alike, a trend which continues to this day. Film editing programs, and CAD (computer aided design) systems for architecture suffer the same “pull-down menu” homogeneity.
Part of the thrill of learning to fly a plane is controlling it, just as part of the thrill for a musician is learning a complex skill that allows for expressivity and meaning; we don’t get that from sitting at one of those electronic keyboards that plays a bossa nova at the touch of a button. This is because doing and acting and living in the world are not all about results—it’s not just about being able to get from Schenectady to Poughkeepsie, or being able to listen to a bossa nova whenever you want. It’s about being able to do these things ourselves. What 6-year-old hasn’t had a feeling of pride at tying her own shoes or crossing the street by herself?
Clearly automation reduces drudgery. It wasn’t so long ago that 6-year-olds had to carry in water from a well to the house and wash their clothes by hand in the nearby river. But where do we draw the line between drudgery and basic skills that society might expect and want an educated, effective person to possess? There are audio books now and text-to-speech conversion programs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn how to read.
As my Minerva Schools colleague Jonathan Katzman has noted, just because we don’t have calculators doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all learn our times tables. “If you’re negotiating with someone who can multiply 28 x 32 in their heads—or at least come up with a close approximation,” Mr. Katzman observes, “they’re going to have a big advantage over you if you have to keep punching numbers into your calculator.” The additional problem is that, without knowing how to multiply in your head, you are less likely to detect a spurious answer from that trusty calculator if you enter one of the numbers wrong. Similarly, despite advances in agribusiness and global-positioning systems, skills we might want to keep include knowing how to grow your own food and how to navigate.
The technology is not responsible for our woes—it is neither good nor bad. As with any technology, its uses can be good or bad. Mississippi state legislator Noah Sweat’s famous 1952 “if-when-you-say-whiskey” speech comes to mind: “If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge . . . that defiles innocence, dethrones reason . . . if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine . . . if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies . . . if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.”
If by automation you mean the soulless fiend that takes jobs away from earnest hard-working Americans, the myopic mechanical monster that robs us of the opportunity to use our hands and our minds in the service of exercising agency in the world; if you mean that collection of integrated circuits that amorally moves electrons from one chip to another without regard for the hopes and dreams and lives it may be crushing in the process, then certainly I am against it.
But if when you say automation you mean the time-saving device that allows a loving couple to spend more time together while the dishes and clothes are restored to their store-bought new condition; if you mean the intelligent, vigilant and benevolent robots that prevent the brakes on our cars from locking in the ice, causing anirreversible skid and resultant loss of life or limb; if you mean the marvelous multi-national manufacturing machines that make the drugs that a child with leukemia needs in order to live a healthy, full and productive life, then certainly I am for it.
Dr. Levitin is the author of “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.” Some of these words appeared previously in Book Review: ‘The Glass Cage’ by Nicholas Carr, written by Daniel J. Levitin and published in The Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2014.
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