This is normally a “G” or on occasion a “PG” rated blog (I gave it those ratings – not a government agency) so parents need not worry about exposing their children to this post. This is not about killing one of the Seven Dwarfs. Rather, it’s about how technology is facilitating our getting dumber and dumber.
Once upon a time there was an expression which went, “He had to live by his wits.” That time is past and that is a fortunate thing for most of us. If we lived by our wits or perished, the funeral home industry would be working round the clock, seven days a week and there would still be a backlog of bodies to process.
I was inspired to write this post because of an event that happened yesterday. I used one of the greatest technological inventions of all time, the car horn and saved a life from being extinguished because of another, more modern technological advance, the “smart” cell phone. I’ll get to the details of the incident in just a moment.
When I blew the horn on my car I wasn’t even sure if it still worked. I think it’s been about three years since I heard it – and that only because I was getting out of my car with a large bag of groceries in my hands and I accidentally bumped into it. That naturally startled the dogs who were milling around waiting for me to open the door of the house so I, of course, apologized to them and they forgave me.
If there’s anything that really irks me it is the idiot who is one centimeter from your rear bumper as you are waiting for a stop light to change and when it does, one nano-second after the green light is displayed, lays on his horn to advise you of the fact. I am very attentive to changes in stop light coloration so this is unnecessary. Because I do not enjoy being “honked at” I don’t do it to other people. So for me to employ my horn means that something really critical is in progress.
Returning to the incident … I was driving to the dog park with Gracie when a young man walked into the street almost directly in front of our car with his eyes firmly affixed to the screen of his cell phone. I would have guessed him to be in his early twenties and unlikely to reach his early thirties.
Fortunately, at the early hour I could see there was no traffic coming the other way so I swerved into the opposite lane and gave a quick toot on the horn to see if I could rouse him from his fixation on the cell phone screen. In the process of swerving to avoid hitting him, Gracie got jammed up against one side of the wagon and banged her right side on the car frame. I am pleased to say that she, the young man and I all survived relatively unscathed.
I pulled the car over to the side of the road and my first reaction was to be angry with this cell phone-fixated fellow. Then I remembered that I have promised myself to try to be nice and kind and gentler to the people I meet. But I did think that it was important that he understood that his actions might have involved all of us in a life-changing event.
I got out of the car to speak with him. He had lowered the cell phone and was apparently beginning to grasp what had happened on his own. Nevertheless, I thought it was appropriate that I let him know my thoughts on the subject and I presented them in the nicest and kindest and most gentle way I could muster considering that my knees were shaking moderately because of all of this.
Well, I found out the source of his fixation. It was his girl friend. He had spent the night at her house and was walking back to his apartment when she sent him a text message saying that she didn’t want to see him anymore. He was naturally surprised,shocked and “distracted” by this announcement, coming only twenty minutes or so after he had left her.
I didn’t see the text message so I don’t know if this was an excuse for his lack of paying attention. If it was the truth, what does it say about our ability to communicate? We now can use technology to trivialize our relations with others, shielding ourselves behind its cold flat panel screens. Other than in a philosophical way, it didn’t really matter to me whether he was telling the truth or making up an excuse. So we took our leave and went on about our business.
You are probably thinking that proves nothing about how using technology is “dumbing us down” and you would be right on the money. Anything has a potential to be used or misused and it is up to us to make the choice.
There is nothing inherently right or wrong in sending or receiving an email or text message. Of course, if the email contains a death threat or pornographic images of children, we believe that is wrong. Although not in a legal sense, I would argue that there is something inherently wrong if staying in touch is so pressing that it jeopardizes our life.
To many of us, being able to access information almost instantaneously is very important. If it weren’t, various network providers would not have run extensive advertising campaigns about how their service provides the greatest geographical coverage and quickest download times.
In the case of this young man, let’s agree that his need to access his communication while paying attention to it and not the fact that public streets often contain moving vehicles was a poor choice on his part and not the fault of the technology which enabled him to do that. That many people engage in that exact form of behavior should be clear from all the furor over drivers who “text” while they operate their vehicles.
I am moderately surprised that the FCC, as an extension of our paternalistic government, hasn’t advocated for the abolition of all cell phones based on the danger that they pose to those of us who misuse them in this way. My only explanation for why that hasn’t been proposed is that acting thus in the “public interest” might put them out of a job. That, and the fact that our cell phone dependent populace might lynch them.
When I was learning to type, Mom who was my instructress, emphasized that “accuracy matters.” I remember all the exercises, how I placed my hands on the typewriter’s keyboard, learning where all the letters were and finally, without having to look, being able to create words and sentences – and to do it quickly. At my peak I typed over 140 wpm with 100% accuracy.
In those days of carbon paper and manual typewriters, accuracy was important. If you messed up you might have to correct one or more copies by manually erasing the error and re-striking the correct letter in its place. This created a product that looked sloppy. So we invented “corrassable” paper which left far fewer smudges. And we invented “White Out” to cover our mistakes – but this still left evidence on the printed page.
We moved from manual typewriters to electric ones and IBM invented the “Selectric” typewriter which could remove an error on the original document by re-striking the mistake while hitting the “X” key and magically it would disappear. Of course these early technological advances in written communication were primitive by comparison to what is available to us today.
We can move whole paragraphs around and if we find a mistake we made earlier, we no longer have to crank a carriage to return to the scene of the crime. We merely cursor up and over it, delete the error and correct it.
If our spelling isn’t that great we have the magic of spell check to guide us and suggest for us what it is that we meant to say. So why make the effort to learn to spell when technology can make up for our learning disabilities? The answer is that we don’t.
I used to pride myself on being able to type a document quickly and accurately. Let me be honest and tell you that in typing this post I’ve probably made at least 100 errors and corrections – so far. I’ve deleted whole paragraphs and replaced them with others. I’ve typed incorrect characters and backspaced to eradicate them. I’ve substituted words and phrases which I felt added a better nuance to the piece.
I do proofread my work because I take pride in it and want to present a professionally written post for you to read. But I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times, after I’ve published a post, I’ve caught an error or decided to add to or delete something that I had previously written and simply changed the piece after publication.
It’s as though I were an author whose works were available in hardbound book form and after publication, an erratum on page 47 line 6 was discovered. So magically, at the press of a button, it was corrected on all the copies that were already in circulation. That master of illusion, David Copperfield has nothing on technology.
What I hope I am conveying to you is that my once accurate approach to typing has been dying a slow death. I still probably accurately type faster and better than most – but that is only because I had many years of practice where it wasn’t the better choice but the only choice. And if you think that this wasn’t important, I made a lot of money in high school and college typing up other students’ term papers at fifty cents a page.
Today, however, by relying on technology I will be the first to admit that I’ve gotten sloppy. It bothers me and I still strive for accuracy. It is, in the end, far more efficient to do it right the first time than to have to re-do something – even if re-doing it is now far simpler.
I suspect that those who have grown up in and only know our present environment have little or no understanding of this concept – which is not their fault. That they are technologically dependent rather than self-reliant speaks directly to the root cause of at least some of our problems as a society.
A few days ago I was speaking with the mother of a three month old baby boy. She was telling me that the new brand of disposable diapers she just purchased, (another technological advance that is one of the greatest contributors to the pollution in our landfills), has a strip which changes color when the diaper is wet. I don’t know what extra amount the manufacturer is charging for this feature but I know she is paying for the convenience of it. Mom used to know when my cloth diapers were wet either through a visual or touch test. I mean, how hard is this?
Later that day one of the guys at the park asked if anyone knew where the least expensive place was to buy razor blades. The men standing around made several suggestions. This fellow said that his last razor blade cartridge had “just gone white.” I didn’t understand what the meant so I asked him to explain and he did.
Apparently there is a little strip at the top of each of these which starts out green and as the blades dull becomes lighter in color until it finally turns white which means that it is time to replace it. I asked innocently, “Wouldn’t you know that because the cartridge is producing less smooth shaves or pulling at your beard?” I thought that was a reasonable question.
He and the other men looked at me as though I were from the planet Uranus (as it was formerly pronounced). I wish my dad were still here so I could ask him how he learned when it was time for him to change the double edge blade he used in his “safety razor.”
Now please don’t get me wrong. We have made technological advances which I wouldn’t trade for the world. Today’s air conditioning beats the pants off our version of a bowl of ice and an oscillating fan that was the best we could do to cool ourselves when I was growing up. This is just one of hundreds of improvements to which I could point.
But when we allow technology (or for that matter another person) to do our thinking for us, we give up, if Descartes was correct, our right to call ourselves human. And I have often wondered, if all the satellites and the batteries suddenly disappeared, how many of us would be able to find our way home?