Technology and the Tool-User

Modern technology is a wonder.  There’s really no doubt about that.  We can manipulate images on screens. We can scan the body to determine what might be causing an illness.  We can talk to people anywhere in the world and even see their images as they respond.  We can produce tens of millions of cars and other transport devices so that we aren’t limited by how far our legs or those of an animal can take us.  We can see images of stars billions of light years away.

But… technology has a price.  In fact, it has several different kinds of prices.  Some are upfront and obvious, such as the prices we pay to purchase all the new and varied products of technology, from computers and cell phones to items as mundane as vacuum cleaners and toaster ovens. Others are less direct, such as the various forms of pollution and emissions from the factories that produce those items or the need for disposal and/or recycling of worn-out or discarded items.  Another indirect cost is that, as the demand for various products increases, often the supply of certain ingredients becomes limited, and that limitation increases the prices of other goods using the same ingredients.

But there’s another and far less obvious price to modern technology.  That less obvious price is that not only do people shape technology, but technology shapes and modifies people.  This has worried people for a long time in history. Probably the invention of writing had some pundits saying that it would destroy memory skills, and certainly this issue was raised when the invention of the printing press made mass production of books possible.  In terms of the impact on most human beings, however, books and printing really didn’t change the way most people perceived the world to a significant degree, although it did raise the level of knowledge world-wide to one where at least the educated individuals in most countries possessed similar information, and it did result in a massive increase in literacy, which eventually resulted in a certain erosion of  the power of theological and ruling elites, particularly in western societies… but the impact internally upon an individual’s perception was far less limited than the doomsayers prophesied.

Now, however, with the invention of the internet, search engines, and all-purpose cellphones providing real-time, instant access to information, I’m already seeing significant differences in the mental attitudes of young people and the potential for what I’d term widespread knowledgeable ignorance.

While generations of students have bemoaned the need to learn and memorize certain facts, formulae, processes, and history, the unfortunate truth is that some such memorization is required for an individual to become a thinking, educated individual.  And in certain professions, that deeply imbedded, memorized and internalized knowledge is absolutely necessary.  A surgeon needs to know anatomy inside and out.  Now, some will say that computerized surgeons will eventually handle most operations. Perhaps…but who will program them?  Who will monitor them? Pilots need to know things like the critical stall speeds of their aircraft and the characteristics of flight immediately preceding a potential stall, as well as how to recover, and there isn’t time to look those up, and trying to follow directions in your ears for an unfamiliar procedure is a formula for disaster.

In every skilled profession, to apply additional knowledge and to progress requires a solid internalized knowledge base.  Unfortunately, in this instant-access-to-information society more and more young people no longer have the interest/skills/ability to learn and retain knowledge. One of the ways that people analyze situations is through pattern-recognition, but you can’t recognize how patterns differ if you can’t remember old patterns because you never learned them.

Another variation of this showed up in the recent financial meltdowns, the idea that new technology and ideas always trump the old.  As one veteran of the financial world observed, market melt-downs don’t happen often, perhaps once a generation, and the Wall Street “whiz-kids” were too young to have experienced the last one, and too contemptuous of the older types whose experience and cautions they ignored… and the reactions of all the high-speed computerized tradeing just made it worse.

A noted scholar at a leading school of music observed privately several months ago that the school was now getting brilliant students who had difficulty and in some cases could not learn to memorize their roles for opera productions. In this electronic world, they’d never acquired the skill.  And in opera, as well as in live theatre, if you can’t memorize the music and the words… you can’t perform.  It’s that simple.   This university has been in existence over a century… and never has this problem come up before.

And what happens when all knowledge is of the moment, and electronic – and can be rewritten and revised to suit the present?  When memory is less trusted than the electronic here and now? You think that this is impossible?  When Jeff Bezos has stated, in effect, that Amazon’s goal is to destroy all print publications and replace them all in electronic formats? And when the U.S. Department of Justice is his unwitting dupe?

But then, who will remember that, anyway?

17 thoughts on “Technology and the Tool-User”

  1. Tim says:

    I agree with a lot of what I have just read. I also realise that my father had to calculate square roots by hand, whereas I was allowed to use log tables and slide rules. Today’s pupils use a calculator with no understanding of the method.

    Also my father was taught Latin and Greek whereas I had to suffer French and German, with Latin reserved for those with most ability ( at the expense of German). Today’s pupils get French and Spanish, and only the public schools (UK term for schools charging $45k per year for boarding fees) teach Latin and understand how it formed the basis of many modern languages.

    The instructors at the Royal Marines training establishment state that today’s intake is not as fit as the previous generation due to computer gaming, isolation (not going out) and junk food. Therefore they generally have to fail 50% to keep the standards up for our elite troops. Many also get injured in training as their fitness is poor.

    The last of these reflects LEM’s musical example, as good troops need to be fit just as opera singers need good memories. Therefore the failure rate will increase as the core skills get rarer.

    Like LEM, I am apprehensive over new technology and am defensive of the old regime, but wonder if I am a Luddite? As the populations of our countries increase rapidly, maybe the larger numbers and statistics will ensure that we get good troops and opera singers in the necessary numbers.

    Is this not evolution?

  2. Perhaps, but evolution isn’t always positive, and people forget that fact Dinosaurs evolved,too, until their size made their survival impossible once the environment changed.

  3. Tim says:

    I thought the accepted reason for the demise of the dinosaurs was an asteroid. Or maybe I am looking at a different stream of acaedemic reasoning? 🙂

  4. The asteroid was the precipitate event, which so changed the environment, by limiting food supplies through sudden and severe climate change, that virtually no large land creatures survived.

  5. rehcra says:

    The cause of their extinction is irrelevant, the point being that evolution in its self does not guarantee survival and actually can be detrimental if one evolves too much to a specific environment.

  6. Tim says:

    I accept that. Howevee, depending on which of the various models you follow, the ability of the local fauna to adapt to the changed conditions depended on the timespan of the catastrophic event. The model I followed implied that evolution had no chance and that the environmental conditions changed so significantly and within such a short time that any large reptile was doomed. A bit like expecting the people who were A-bombed to evolve to be able to handle high levels of radiation.

    Regardless of what happened 160 million years ago, we are experiencing change now but more slowly. I accept the premise that we are more vulnerable when we trust more to the electronic cloud. I remember seeing some amazing and totally incorrect entries on Wikipedia which would have even viewed by many as accurate, in spite of the warnings presented at the top of the page.

    I also remember being taught that history is written by the victors. As more and more information is revealed about WW2 after 70 years I have realised that some teaching in my youth needs to be viewed a bit differently, though probably accepted anyway.


  7. Tim says:

    Before any one comments, yes I know that the K even t was 65 million years ago! My apologies as I was looking at something else at the time….

  8. R. Hamilton says:

    Part of the problem you describe, you already put limits on by citing previous examples that were relatively non-disruptive, to which others could be added, like radio, telephones, television, pocket calculators. Even a dumb cell-phone without web access reduces the need to plan ahead quite a bit.

    And yet…while a person certainly should be able to function without such a device, at least until it’s inseparable from their body and as reliable (more so if you consider that a computer virus in an implant could be really nasty), I’d like to think that most people will merely slow down at tasks they don’t have to do by hand, not lose the ability altogether. I can still figure my grocery bill (including taxes, give or take a penny on the result) in my head, despite having had portable calculators available since about the time I went to high school, and a cell phone with at least calculator capability almost always with me for at least seven years. Mostly I just don’t bother though, not that I did all that often even without technological crutches. After impressing a few clerks, the entertainment value wears off quickly, and I’d notice a discrepancy large enough to have any impact on me anyway.

    As you mention, some operations are either time-critical or require a human to be able to assume manual control or program the automated control, or both.

    Nevertheless, the answer in many cases is NOT encyclopedic knowledge, but an understanding of principles and ONLY having memorized the specific details that are likely to be essential for speed or redundancy.

    If I debug someone else’s program that I’ve never seen before, I rarely study it exhaustively, and I’m lucky if there is any documentation addressed to the code maintainer aside from the occasional comment in the source code. The skill in doing that quickly is in large part a matter of narrowing down on the likely locations of the problem and the minimum changes needed to fix it, as quickly as possible. In other words, learn the LEAST about the specific problem needed to address it.

    Of course that only works on top of a reasonably wide understanding of both principles, idioms, and common errors.

    When I’m writing a program myself, I look up even many things I think I’ve memorized, just to be sure I’ve got it right the first time (if I used a graphical Integrated Development Environment (IDE), it could probably do that for me, or check me on the fly). The less I have to go back and clean up, the more time I can spend on performance or features. (Reliability on the other hand seems to me largely a matter of knowing the usual hazards and developing “safe” habits, since for anything nontrivial, an actual proof of correctness would be quite expensive.)

    So I tend to be relatively comfortable with the new approach. Memorize what you must, but no more; but remember effective search strategies. For me, since I never felt comfortable with the contrived nature of most mnemonic tricks, it has always been easier to remember principles than more than the shortest and most essential lists of data. Nevertheless, I have read a few survival manuals along the way, have a few tools on my keychain…and could probably get by for awhile without much in the way of technology, although I’d certainly get the jitters from the lack of an awareness of what was going on beyond the horizon, perhaps more than from the howling of the coyotes at night.

    So I’d say that it’s worthwhile to raise the point from time to time, but the only people that will not figure it out for themselves are the ones that would have probably splattered themselves anyway (and occasionally bystanders) over some other issue. Dead idiots (and associated collateral damage), not to mention lots of lesser incompetence, is one of the prices of any society, let alone one that places some value on freedom.

  9. Joe says:

    Why pick on the internet? These days, it has better a signal to noise ratio than TV.

    I would start earlier. It turns out that High school students cannot apply critical thought to science class. They can follow a recipe to pass their science labs. An unfortunate accident? Perhaps not, since the Texan 2012 GOP platform opposes teaching critical thinking. More generally, we reap what we sow, and we’ve been teaching to the test.

    Ultimately, I’m hopeful people who really want to learn will be able to using the internet, despite living in an academic desert.

    It would be nice to believe public education will improve. I’m not holding my breath. The current occupants of government and many other institutions have as only skill lining their pockets. One cannot serve both Good and Mammon.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Give or take (maybe) a few libertarians, arguably ALL politicians of BOTH major parties oppose critical thinking, because if more people did it, they wouldn’t stand a chance of being re-elected.

  10. Tiffanie H. says:

    You know, cave men knew how to hunt mammoth, set traps for small animals, and use urine to cure leather. How many of us could do the same? I think I’ll go look it up on the internet? Maybe I can learn it there. Heaven help me if it doesn’t work and my world crashes.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      There are no mammoth left, the cave men (or climate change, long before technology!) finished them off.

      Aside from that, survival with minimal technology is quite possible for those that are reasonably healthy in body and mind, and reasonably unafraid of new situations. There are of course many that don’t meet those conditions, and wouldn’t last a month. Dialysis without electricity would be kind of difficult.

      Probably not a bad thing to go camping once in awhile (with most comforts either left behind or off-limits for non-emergencies), and to occasionally look at everything one takes for granted and ask oneself what one would do if it wasn’t available.

      I’m not likely to go hunting if I don’t have to though. Nothing against it, I just prefer paper targets and the illusion that food comes out of nice neat refrigerated packages. I’ll set the illusion aside quickly enough if I get hungry, and have some idea (if unpracticed) how to go about procuring food the messy way, I just don’t want to gross myself out needlessly. I’d admit to wanting a deerskin jacket, but not to wanting it enough to procure the material and do all the work myself; certainly not unless it was a need and not just a want.

      1. Tiffanie H. says:

        Mammoth’s are extinct???!!! Really? WOW. How thoughtful of you to point that out. By the way, you completely missed my point.
        Oh well, maybe mammoth’s and cell phones can share a fire together someday when they’re ALL extinct. I’ll miss my cell phone just as much as I miss the mammoths.

        1. R. Hamilton says:

          I missed your point because I have trouble seeing how it emerges from what you said.

          I strongly suspect that even if many people have become dependent on a lot that ought not to be essential, if it went away, most would survive for awhile, even if clumsily.

          Thus, if googling for first aid info doesn’t cause a first aid kit to appear out of thin air, it doesn’t replace a first aid book and a flashlight, either.

          Could I keep from starving with just what I could find or catch wherever I happened to be? Probably. Could I match the sheer endurance of someone that even now hunts gazelle with nothing but a pointed stick and a loincloth? No way. What would be the point of that, either?

          1. Tiffanie H. says:

            RH, I’m enjoying this discussion. You and I seem to think about things so differently, but I like that I can learn from your perspective, and I appreciate that you read other’s posts and actually respond to them.
            This is my point: That the mammoth– an essential source of food (energy), clothing etc.– became extinct. We no longer have any need of it. Could the cave men survive without it? Well, we’ve proven that haven’t we? And the cycle continues. The things that are necessary for our survival now are probably not going to be the things necessary for our future.
            Do we bemoan the loss of that legendary mammoth?
            Yes (most of us anyway).
            You’re looking at what might happen if some of the luxuries we enjoy were to ‘go away’– And you’ve got some good thoughts on that. My focus has been on the cycle that is going to navigate our future. What is to become our new model of mammoth?

  11. Ryan Jackson says:

    This all anecdotal and based on my own experiences, but I’ve noticed something about this current issue. It’s almost darwinism. Sadly there are a large number of people that would be helpless if all our comforts went away. But there’s also a lot that would be fine.

    I’m someone who never memorized, even before the net, because I’d rather remember why something was important and know how to go find the exact date it happened. I could go into detail on a great many wars, their purpose, their results, the political and social results of them, etc, etc (History is a passion of mine). I couldn’t give you the dates for them if you held me at gunpoint. I’m like this in a lot of ways, I can’t do complex math in my head (ie higher than +,-m/,*), I understand but could not adequately explain physics, etc. But, I also contradict the idea that that somehow prevented my learning or ability to deal with situations on the fly. Honestly, in those cases I seem to have had no trouble picking things up. Dealing with martial arts, weaponry, fighting, first aid, hunting, etc. All of these things I do from muscle memory, instinctive recall, training kicking in without deliberate thought to do so. All those things that this new technology supposedly ruins are thriving just fine in me.

    I might be an exception to the rule, but I don’t have the arrogance to believe I’m somehow special or superior. Maybe I’m above the line of average, but by the very nature of averages so should a great many others.

    So is the current trend depressing on some levels? A little. Does it have the potential to do great harm to many? Unfortionately yes. But it seems to be serving a purpose at the same time. And many of us are able to keep the very things this new tech is supposed to be damaging.

  12. Dan says:

    This post reminded me of a book that I read some years ago. I think it may have been one of Piers Anthony’s Cluster novels, but I’m not sure. What I vaguely remember is that the society had become so technically advanced that the average person was no longer literate. They interacted with their computers vocally, versus typing text, and literacy was no longer a necessity. I can see people being too lazy to learn to read, once voice recognition software reaches the necessary levels of sophistication. I’ll admit that I actually prefer to listen to an audiobook, but that’s mostly because I like to do something else while I’m “reading.”

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