It’s tempting, when encountering the dire predictions of the Wendell Berry and other techno critics (including Marc), to lump the computer with the atom bomb. Instead of nuclear winter (the bang), however, the computer will take us out with a whimper—the continued dumbing down of culture until we climb back into the trees waiting for our keeper to throw us bananas. Marc is right, the world feels dumber and less equipped to handle once basic needs—navigation, communication and even simple calculation.
I will grant that software (and even hardware, if we take smart phones as an example) is being transitioned from applications of ownership to applications on lease. When we consider the fact that we buy computers for a thousand dollars (five times the price of my first car) only to watch new operating systems and apps render them practically useless within three years, the technological economy does seem to wish to reduce us to slum and slumlord transactions.
And the world does seem dumber. For many (including me, the office of President has devolved intellectually from the bright, but criminally dishonest Nixon to the kind-hearted grandfather who confused movies with reality Ronald Reagan, to Yale graduate with a report card full of Ds George Bush, to the President who educated himself on tabloid media. We see Facebook posts with ignorant student answers to basic school questions, on the street interviews where people don’t know who was President before Bush.
When I read those wrong test answers, they feel fake. I taught college and high school and some of them seem a little too well scripted for student answers. When I think back on my high school, people didn’t seem much smarter than now. I knew people who believed the National Enquirer, many of my friends were far less interested in current events than they are now we’re in our sixties, and “average” was still considered dumb as opposed to the norm.
Digital tools don’t make us dumber. If we choose to rely on them less than before, that is our fault. For years, when I taught multimedia classes, I would challenge students (and school officials paraded through our half-million dollar advanced lab) to solve a simple math problem, say 512+224.
They would look though the menu for a calculator, rush to type in the numbers and discover I solved it on the blackboard before most of them found the menu bar. Sometimes, I’d tell them, the best way to solve the problem is without technology. I still do, until I have to start scrambling for rarely used formulas and information I loaded into my brain in 1975. That’s a lot of neural pathways to transverse when my best skill remains writing.
Who do we blame for the impulse to look for the calculator? IBM who invented the computer to simplify calculations involving numbers to the power of 72? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for finally delivering workable desktop computers? Texas Instruments for building the first commercially successful hand-held computer? Or people looking for an easier way to approach their lives and confusing technology with speed and convenience?
Do we blame the slumlord when we voluntarily leave our well-constructed suburban homes and move into the digital projects?
On the flip side, I can think of any number of studies that show the ability to master tech skills translates to old style skills far better than the other way around. This is why the military realized gamers make better soldiers.
Maybe the Manhattan Project should never have been allowed to develop the atomic bomb. Maybe we should have thought through the consequences of using it in our haste to end World War II. That won’t absolve us of the responsibility for launching the nukes now.
I think we have the responsibility to master the technology available and put it to the best use. That technology gives me access to more information than I ever had at my university library. We also have the responsibility to question and weigh everything we read. We should know how to use a screwdriver and hammer a nail. And, sooner or later, I may step into a driverless car. I won’t give up driving. But, gratefully, I still have the money to buy a car and digital technology.
Nor should we forget another dark side to the digital age, the subtle messages conveyed in every smartphone, smart device and tablet. One says we’re not worthy without our tech. The other says that once we have it, we shouldn’t fulfill its purpose, which is allow us to accomplish our tasks with less effort, but instead we should buy every app and add on so we can:
Plenty of people in this country and the world at large are forced to rely on pre-technological skills. Let’s make sure our schools and society provide them with the resources to do so successfully.
The original promise of lease apps such as Photoshop CC, was their “modularity.” We only needed to lease those elements we truly need—say, digital imaging with text capabilities and not 3D, animation and web slicing functionality, Adobe delivered a modular suite, but the components remain Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc., all with functions that duplicate each other.
I, for one, believe ethics should be instilled into scientists from their first years in college, if not before. In fact, I believe a panel of ethicists and scientists should review all ground breaking technology for it’s social impact and refuse the permits for research into the atomic bomb or biological warfare. Even as I say that, I realize scientists would have stumbled across them in unrelated research.