Technology: Are We Taking the Easy Way Out?

In a recent series of articles regarding technological evolution on The New Yorker website, Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, raised some interesting questions about our relationship with technology. Particularly, Is growing technological advancement stunting our biological growth?

He frames this particular question with two other ones: Does technology make us smarter? and Does easy technology actually makes life easier? For the first question, Wu uses a hypothetical scenario of a learned time traveller from 1914, asking someone behind a curtain a variety of questions. The hidden person is able to answer all kinds of complex questions, astounding the time traveller. Of course, this hidden person is one of us, equipped with a smart phone.

While the time traveller may find this stranger to be ingenious for having all the answers, it is debatable whether that person can be considered intelligent, based on the fact that all this information was retrieved through the phone. Removing the smartphone and laying down a second barrage of questions may yield completely different results. Despite the incredible amount of resources at our fingertips, does referring to these objects actually develop knowledge or does it make retaining information less necessary? A calculator for example is a great tool but the more we use one the less practiced our arithmetic becomes and we default to the calculator more and more.

Of course, the effectiveness of a calculator is only as good as our knowledge of math. Using a calculator for basic arithmetic might make you stupider, but using it to solve complex equations makes you resourceful. This brings up the concept of biological atrophy, where unused skills or abilities are lost over time. So while technology has the power to support our abilities, there is also a very real risk of it replacing our abilities. A great example of this is the use of GPS. It is an incredible piece of technology, that is super helpful, but inhibiting if not used correctly.

A GPS is a great way to avoid getting lost, finding a location that is new to you, or finding good detours, however, you may notice that when using a GPS device while driving, your attention is often diverted from the road to the LCD screen. I’ll find myself comparing the simulation to the actual road and getting confused, instead of just listening to where it’s telling me to go and reading the road signs. In this capacity, I’m merely being guided by the device instead of learning the way and developing some navigational intuition.

Few people even consult road atlases anymore, before embarking on a trip, putting all their trust in the device, but what happens when the technology fails? This and internet resources like google maps or mapquest with their “Directions” features, have made reading a map less necessary and therefore less practiced. GPS in this case becomes what Wu calls a “convenience technology,” while a map is a “demanding technology,” something that takes time to understand and master, is highly occupying in usage and whose operation has a real risk of failure.

That is not to say that convenience technology is negative, just the way we use it. GPS is incredible, but if you think you know a better route, don’t be afraid to defy the robot voice, it will “recalculate” and see it your way. Wu is trying to get us to be more conscious about how we use the wonderful technology at hand. Biological atrophy is a long term consequence that needs to be considered now. How has typing and keyboards affected human penmanship? How will GPS affect humans’ ability to navigate autonomously?

Fact is, human beings thrive on being challenging. Accomplishing anything involves effort, overcoming obstacles, getting through a long struggle. It is how we get better. Luckily, people continue to work hard, innovate and embrace demanding tasks. Ideally, this desire to be challenged and intellectually stimulated continues in people, but if we opt for convenience, we will fall into complacency and stagnate.

In the short term, Wu makes a fascinating observation about how convenience technology inundates our lives. Once, technology was thought to usher in an era of leisure, more time to do what matters to us, but it appears to have had the opposite effect. Instead, we are giving up our free time to a multitude of minor tasks. Email for example is an incredible innovation, but as we move away from corresponding by a few long letters every few weeks, we are now responsible for answering hundreds of emails daily. We spend a majority of our time multitasking between texting, tweeting, updating Facebook statuses and snapchatting, so that when we put our heads down to sleep, we can’t say what it was that we actually accomplished that day. If the biological atrophy argument doesn’t compel you, maybe that will.