Monthly Archives: September 2010

Losing It

What are we losing with this great rush to embrace new technologies?

My Mom is moving and downsizing, so she wanted to get rid of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was the 1977 edition and took up more than 4 feet of bookshelf space. And you can get it online now, or so they say. But it started me thinking about how we look at books as opposed to the way we get our information from the internet. I was one of those kids who loved to flip through the old encyclopedia, the really old one we had from the 1890s, and discover things. An illustration or a word would jump out at me and I would devour the contents before moving on. In our modern mode, we know what we are looking for and mostly limit ourselves to whatever Google tells us is the most important. Those pages before and after don’t even enter our view. Those happy accidental discoveries are sadly MIA.

And the ways we acquire our knowledge base must have changed as well. When I was in college, a day in the library, searching through journals for relevant articles, or reading through parts of non-relevant information to get to the parts I need surely left me with more bits of data rattling around in my heads that might someday bump up against each other and produce that great idea. (Yes, I am still waiting, but nonetheless.)

Smart Phones and texting are also taking away something. This instant gratification, not letting ideas ferment, percolate, leads to unformed decision making. Studies have shown that sleeping on it is indeed helpful in working out solutions to complex problems, but attention spans across the board have been cut down by the endless streams of our sound-bite, Tweeted lives. And it extends to the TV news cycle. How many stories have been rushed to the air (or blogosphere) before they were fact checked, only to create a feeding frenzy of pointed fingers after the truth comes out? What is gained and what is lost when truth takes a back seat to knee-jerk?

I have a saying for what a lot of people need to do these days when faced with something that may need to be slept on; “Take a deep breath and think of hot chocolate.”

Since the beginning of time, new technologies have come and things have been shaken up. People have embraced many for good reason, but some have been used badly. I think of radiation. After Marie Curie made her discovery, people were off and running using radium and x-rays all over the place. Sure x-rays saved some lives, but by speeding their use into practice, untold thousands of people died of radiation poisoning or cancers from their use. Radium dial painters, see-your-feet machines in shoe stores, even x-ray as entertainment were some of the many fatal mistakes that were made is the rush to exploit the new technology. And today we are into knee-jerk airport security and are switching over to x-raying people again, because “we have the technology.”

Another of the new technologies that I see taking rather than giving is GPS. Sure, for the seriously directionally challenged it is a big help. I have a niece who could not find her way to the school she attended for a year. But for many people, it means not paying attention, giving the responsibility of knowing where one is over to a gadget. And it is not always correct. Here again, by using a tech tool, the beauty of wandering and discovering something off the path is taken away. Not to mention knowing how to read a map. Will the next generation be unable to get from here to there without their GPS? Not to mention that, looking at a map, you might discover something interesting between here and there that the machine won’t point out.

I don’t want to come off as a Luddite. I was an early adopter of many of the last couple of decades’ biggest hits — the laptop, the iPod — but I am not sure that machines are not going to take over the world because people are giving up their brains to them. And I am not alone in this thought.

John Markoff writes in a N Y Times Article titled Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man:

The idea of an “intelligence explosion” in which smart machines would design even more intelligent machines was proposed by the mathematician I. J. Good in 1965. Later, in lectures and science fiction novels, the computer scientist Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of a moment when humans will create smarter-than-human machines, causing such rapid change that the “human era will be ended.” He called this shift the Singularity.

This vision, embraced in movies and literature, is seen as plausible and unnerving by some scientists like William Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Other technologists, notably Raymond Kurzweil, have extolled the coming of ultrasmart machines, saying they will offer huge advances in life extension and wealth creation.

“Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years,” Dr. Horvitz said. “Technologists are providing almost religious visions, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.”

It is the end of the world as we know it. Not sure how I feel about that.

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