Our Phones Are Getting Smarter, But Are We Getting Dumber?
Are we making ourselves useless in the face of technology?
Posted May 13, 2013
Nearly 100 years ago, Albert Einstein wrote the following: "I fear the day when technology will surpass our human interaction. We will have a generation of idiots."
As anyone who knows my blog knows, I also worry about what technology is doing to us as a species. And lately, I worry specifically about how our increasing reliance on technology is affecting our intelligence. As we cede more and more responsibility to our devices, are we humans becoming dumber? Are we forgetting how to think? Is now the time that Einstein prophesized?
I was at the home of a friend, an educated and highly intelligent woman. A serviceman was working in her house at the time. Upon completing his work, he handed my friend a bill. From where I was sitting I could see that on it he had written "2 Plumbing Services: $295." The following exchange then transpired:
My friend: "If you remember, you told me that you would charge me your lower rate of $130 for the first service and the higher rate, $165, for the second. I think you may have forgotten and charged me the higher rate for both."
Serviceman: "I remember our conversation. That's why I charged you $295."
My friend: "But you didn't itemize the two jobs so I didn't know if that's the case. I wasn't sure you remembered to charge me the lower rate for the first job."
Serviceman: "But the total is $295 so that's the lower rate plus the higher rate."
At this point my friend went and fetched her bag, searched out her iPhone (a process that took a few minutes) then tapped a couple icons on her screen and several moments later, a calculator appeared. She typed in 1, 3, 0, +, 1, 6, 5, =, and voila... the device flashed the magic number: 295. My friend had her answer.
My friend: "Oh you're right, sorry. I just didn't know because it wasn't clearly itemized on your bill."
At the AT&T store on Broadway:
Clerk: "I will need your phone number to upgrade your plan."
Customer: "Hmmm. Well I never call myself so I don't know my number." (She then turns on her smartphone to retrieve her phone number.)
I was buying a new flat-screen television at Best Buy. When I asked the sales girl how to operate the system, she told me I could go online and get the instructions. When I asked her how I would get it home and install it, she told me she had no idea, but that probably I could do a Google search or perhaps it was also listed on the Best Buy site.
Answering questions that required thought were not a part of her job. She was trained to do one thing: enter my data into her computer. At one point her computer froze and she stood there helplessly, waiting for the grand master to tell us what to do with a frozen screen. Unfortunately, it was the master who was frozen, and so we were out of luck. When I (still of the thinking world) suggested that we try her companion's computer, she relented and we began the process all over again.
Ideally, we delegate responsibility for menial tasks in order to free ourselves up to do more meaningful work. But in the case of computers, we are turning over the tasks of life to technology in order to free ourselves to do what? Get to a higher level of "Angry Birds"? Play more "Scrabble with Friends"? We have turned over the nuts and bolts of living to technology and instead of becoming higher functioning creatures, we have become idle, helpless sloths.
Now that the smartphone is here, we no longer feel that it is our responsibility to think. We know how to enter information into a screen, but we have given up responsibility for the processing of that information. I worry that the more we ask our computers to figure things out, the less we will be able to do it for ourselves. Just as the tail lost its purpose, will the ability to think will no longer be necessary?
The problem is that we humans still (and I hope will always) need to be able to think. Figuring things out, processing information, connecting ideas -- these are the skills of invention and progress -- the skills that separate us from sheep. I for one am not comfortable with becoming (or living in a world of) helpless and lobotomized sheep, deferring to the computer for answers that I used to be able to and still want to be able to figure out myself.