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Technology-Good Or Bad

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Category: Technology

Autor: anton 16 November 2010

Words: 993 | Pages: 4

Is Technology Good for Us?

I suspect that the percentage of the population physically capable of completing a ten-mile run has decreased over the last generation or so. Cars are the culprit. But few seem willing to give up their automobiles to walk more. Apparently the freedom to travel long distances, quickly, and whenever we want is worth the risk of love handles...for most.

Monday's New York Times asks a related question, "Is technology making us smarter? Or are we lazily reliant on computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?"

I wrote last year,

...aren't we as a practical matter in some ways smarter because we have the Internet than we were ten years ago without it? Our ability to process information is the same, but our ability to access information and communicate it to others has vastly improved.

This New York Times story is itself a good example. Without the Internet the chances that I, a guy living down in Louisiana, would have ever read this article are slim. And not only have I read it, but I have the oportunity to comment on it to a relatively large audience. And, of course, you get to read the article too. I don't see how any of this could make anyone "dumber."

On the other hand it seems obvious that we are losing some abilities as we adopt new technologies. Isaac Asimov's classic short story, "The Feeling of Power" highlighted this tendency. Asimov's protagonist rediscovers the lost art of arithmetic in a world of warring computers.

"Well," said the President, considering, "it's an interesting parlor game [arithmetic by hand], but what is the use of it?"

"What is the use of a newborn baby, Mr. President? At the moment there is not use, but don't you see that this points the way toward liberation from the machine?

Well, not quite. Technologies aren't abandoned unless something better comes along. The rediscovery of the bicycle in the distant future isn't likely to "liberate" civilization from more advanced forms of transit. Pencil and paper won't replace Excel.

Some of this concern about new, easier methods is a sort of luddite nostalgia.

You kids are so spoiled. Why in my day we didn't have computers. We had coal powered difference engines. And we had to get that fire hot to do long division.

But we were thankful!

It's nothing new for the old-timers to bemoan the laziness of young people with new technology.

Only 600 years ago, people relied on memory as a primary means of communication and tradition. Before the printed word, memory was essential to lawyers, doctors, priests and poets, and those with particular talents for memory were revered. Seneca, a famous teacher of rhetoric around A.D. 37, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard years before. "Memory," said Greek playwright Aeschylus, "is the mother of all wisdom."

People feared the invention of the printing press because it would cause people to rely on books for their memory. Today, memory is more irrelevant than ever, argue some academics.

I guess it depends on how you define memory. With the Internet at your fingertips there are some things there seems little reason to know "by heart."

Dr. Watson, describing Sherlock Holmes in "A Study in Scarlet" [source]

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

Einstein tended to agree. Reputedly he didn't even recall his own phone number (can't say I am great at remembering my landline number - the mobile is easier)

ONE OF Einstein's colleagues asked him for his telephone number one day. Einstein reached for a telephone directory and looked it up.

"You don't remember your own number?" the man asked, startled.

"No," Einstein answered. "Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?"

In fact, Einstein claimed never to memorize anything which could be looked up in less than two minutes.

That might be taking it a bit far. It seems a waste of two minutes to look up your own phone number every day, but there is a benefit to big picture thinking. This is what bloggers engage in all the time.

For example, I remembered the Sherlock Holmes "brain is like an attic" conversation from having read the story years ago. I did not, of course, remember the exact quote. But I had the quote in ten seconds thanks to Google. The Einstein anecdote was a nice bonus.

Accelerating developement that has brought us tools like the Internet has not made it possible for us to slack off. We are competing on an expanding playing field. We need to understand more of the big picture so that we can understand (categorize, understand and explain by analogy) new developments. It helps that search engines make it possible for us to find information easily. But a wide knowledge base inside the skull keeps a researcher from wondering aimlessly.

Which is important because few of us have two minutes to spare anymore

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