Friday Musings: Smarter Tools. Dumber Brains?

Fort Worth holds a special place in my heart. Funky town, as the locals call it, is where I went to college and where my wife and I got engaged. Now with kids, we still manage to make the 30-minute trip at least once a month. Yet, somehow, I still don’t know how to get to half of our favorite landmarks. Any time we go to Joe T. Garcia’s, 4-Day-Weekend, Gypsy Scoops, Trinity Park, or any local gem I’m completely dependent on google maps.

We’ve all undoubtedly noticed how quickly any intuitive sense of direction has vanished following the smartphone and its many map apps. Human survival once depended on a highly attuned sense of direction. Today, we’ve largely outsourced the capability. This is a recurring theme of technological innovation. Following the Agricultural revolution humans spent less time mastering the skill of building spears and were freed up to innovate with written language, political systems, mathematics, and more.

We’re reaching a point, however, where so many tasks are outsourced and comfort is so certain that dependency has far outpaced the acquisition of new skills. Smart technology makes life easy, but it often discourages people from honing basic human capabilities.

Today I’ll routinely see athletes using the calculator app on their phones to figure out how much weight they are lifting. It isn’t as if they are Atlas trying to lift the entire gym. The bar is 45 pounds and they have a 25 and 5 on each side. 105 pounds. This is simple arithmetic, yet immersed in normalized dependency, many youth have never cultivated these skills. Sure the calculator will usually be available, but the mind is never refined or forced to adapt through stress. It remains a weaker, infantile version. We wouldn’t allow children to use a walker their whole lives just because the technology existed. No. We encourage them to walk unaided so that they gain basic capability. When they fall, we encourage them to get up and try again.

The foundation of human success has been our adaptability and ingenuity. Today, all adaptation takes place in the latest update. It is quite possible to reach adulthood with few talents other than quick texting thumbs and an uncanny knack for flipping water bottles over and having them land upright. While it is undeniably nice to have the support of google maps while driving in new places, we should keep in mind that human fulfillment requires that we become competent and useful.

Having more will never be as rewarding as being capable of more. The overspecialization that has characterized industrial societies leads to social isolation and a narrow perception incapable of grasping broader themes. Even more, in the future it is creative skills that will be in demand. Anything repetitive is becoming automated. We must become polymaths with the ability to see the relationships between many seemingly disparate ideas and tie them together into something novel.

As the age of automation revs into overdrive, it is prudent to intentionally hone a diversity of skills and reduce our dependency so that we are capable of greater humanity. Ditch the map app, learn to tie knots, practice cartwheels and handstands, learn magic tricks, or pick up a new language. Each offers new perspective and enhances future experience.

Smarter tools can lead to dumber brains, or, with a better approach they can scaffold our minds to heights previously unreachable. Simulations allow pilots to practice flight scenarios. Athletes turn to video equipment to analyze technique and discern the previous undiscernible. Chess masters learn from brilliant computer algorithms. Regardless of the subject or endeavor, technology can become a crutch that fills in for former human capacities or, when its negatives are mitigated, it can prompt heightened levels of discovery and understanding.

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