Marolt: Have computers made hieroglyphics obsolete?
Technology is not the end of the world. Excuse me for believing for a moment that it is. I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal by Nicholas Carr titled “Automation Makes Us Dumb.” I read it the old-fashioned way, on paper, so it might seem funny that I was dumb enough to buy into his premise for a moment.
Yes, a lot of what Carr said is true, which can be said of a lot of excellent lies. He said that not doing the things we used to do because they are now being done by computers makes us not as good at they are. It’s something along the lines of “lack of practice makes lack of perfection.”
He talks about things like doctors getting mentally lazy because computers are now making diagnoses for them. He talks about automatic pilots causing real pilots to become less physically adroit in averting crashes in flight simulators. The statistics show that modern-age pilots are not as skilled behind the yoke as they were in the old days. Apparently the Wright brothers were strong as oxen and as handy with tools as pirate-ship sawbones. A worst-case scenario, perhaps, is for former autoworkers. Not only do computers think for them on the assembly lines, but machines turn the wrenches, too. Reports are that there is nothing left of them.
So far, so good for Carr. Computers appear, indeed, to be taking over the world by turning our minds into mush. Without those, we have to rely on muscle for survival, but video games and such are atrophying them, too. On top of everything else, if we ever find ourselves in a flat-spin dive during a commercial airline flight, there is a good chance that our pilot will not be as capable of pulling us out of it. I’m scared. Let’s throw all computers into the sea and find out if they can swim. Ha! Human ingenuity prevails, after all.
Hold on a minute, though. Should we really care if pilots today are less capable of salvaging crashing jets when the chances of jets getting into trouble in the first place are greatly reduced by the use of autopilots? Since we may not presumably be smart enough to answer a simple question like that, I’ll use a statement based on good ol’ organic intelligence to make my point instead: Airline travel is safer today than ever before.
Do we really care that assembly-line workers are being replaced by machines when we see how much better and reliable modern automobiles are than our dear old dad’s faux-wood-sided Oldsmobile station wagons were? Shouldn’t I be thankful for a doctor whose fingers are more often on the keyboard instead of my body parts considering the marvels of modern medicine? What of it that architects and engineers do their math on computers instead of notepads and don’t know the nuances of a slide rule?
That brings me to my simple point. We live longer and more comfortably today than at any time in history. This is 10 percent due to innovation and technology. And we are not getting dumber. We are not getting physically weaker or less coordinated. We are not getting less creative.
What computers do for us is give us more free time and a means to use it effectively. They have eliminated the monotony of turning nuts and sifting data, where a mind subject to such boredom can easily and often make mistakes.
Far from dulling the mind and squelching creativity, technology encourages both. Think about what people are doing with more time on their hands and technology in them. It has never been easier and cheaper to make a movie, record music or publish a book. Within a decade or two, it will likely become the norm for every school-age kid to do one of these. Art has never been more accessible. Exercise has never been more fun or effective. Gourmet cooking at home is a possibility, and choosing the proper wine to go with it is a snap. For Pete’s sake, you can take MIT courses in the comfort of your bathrobe at your kitchen table for free!
Just as the Gutenberg press made storytelling for all but grandparents and fishermen an unnecessary obligation subject to deviation and diversions in retelling, computers have revolutionized the world by making the inefficient obsolete. Sure, some tall-tale tellers had to find new work. Maybe the descendants of some of them now write for The Wall Street Journal.
Roger Marolt thinks we should be as wary of technology as the caveman was of fire. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.