The other day I was out driving with my sister in law, who had her iphone stolen a few days prior. We were a bit lost, and her backup cell phone did not have mapping software on it. She grew increasingly frustrated as we kept asking people for directions and then not finding our destination. At one point she lamented that she is now lost – in the larger sense of the word – without her iphone. This gave me pause.
I think we all become luddites as we age – my parents complained that using calculators in school would prevent me from learning basic math. I also think that the luddites do not necessarily have it wrong – my math skills suck. The refreshing thing about technology, however, is that it always frees us up to do more with less – there is always some next level of cognitive ability enabled by technology which – perhaps coincidentally – the luddites don’t get. There’s some relationship between the point at which I do not understand Facebook and the point at which I think that Facebook might be a force for evil in the world.
So anyway, I’ve been thinking about whether the process I just described is process that can go on forever.
Here’s the premise. The first machines harnessed leverage to give humans more physical strength. As we came to rely on them we lost our own. The Industrial Revolution made it possible through the division of labor to produce more complex things, though individually we lost the ability to build things from start to finish. Radio enabled communication but made oration a lost art. Fast forward to the internet with its instant everything and the list of lost abilities is long indeed. Of course the response to nostalgia about any of these things is that we live in society, that we no longer need those lost skills, and some other skill has replaced what is lost – whether it’s programming or surfing the internet or whatever the next thing is. But the pattern is clear – we lose our ability to do that which we do not do.
So what’s the endpoint of technological advance, then? We sit around and do nothing but consume matter and data while all of the production of matter and data is done by machines? Become listless, consuming blobs? Not only is that scary – it’s kind of already happening. We are, after all, lost without our iPhones…