Convenient Technologies are Making Us Less Intelligent

Just when you think that some newfangled device is the best thing since sliced bread, you then find out that the awesome convenience you now rely on is actually making you less intelligent. This is called “Convenient Technology”. It turns out that human physiology is more complex than simply making some tool extremely convenient.

I contrast convenient technology to demanding technology:

Just what is a demanding technology? Three elements are defining: it is technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure. By this measure, a piano is a demanding technology, as is a frying pan, a programming language, or a paintbrush. So-called convenience technologies, in contrast—like instant mashed potatoes or automatic transmissions—usually require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.

While convenient tech is, well, very convenient, it might result in a reduction of intelligence for the user. Contrary to popular and expected belief, when you do not use the brain, we forget how to do certain common tasks and consequently become stupider. There are examples aplenty:

  • Cordless Phones store commonly used phone numbers: I remember this when cordless phones first came out. People would put important numbers on speed dial, where at a touch of a button the phone would dial for you, all without you remembering the number. The problems arose in a blackout, where a manual phone would work, yes, but because the phone number was on speed dial, the user had forgotten the frequently called number.
  • Velcro Shoes: I do remember a little boy who’s mother bought him velcro shoes. oh how convenient it was, she said, for little Gong Li to be able to put his shoes on by himself. The problem was that Gong Li never originally learned to tie shoe laces, so when he eventually wore out and could not find a velcro closure shoe, he could not tie his own shoe laces.
  • Automatic Transmission Cars: Many people debate this, but it is quite difficult but not impossible to use a smartphone and drive a standard transmission car. On the other hand it is quite easy to eat a burger while talking on the phone, while driving an automatic transmission car.
  • Smartphones: These l’objet du jour are ubiquitous. Everyone has one, and they near fully automate our lives. On the other hand people are forgetting how to do simple daily computational tasks without the aid of a smartphone. Tasks include simple arithmetic at the grocery store.
  • Self-driving cars: Set and forget navigation and driving will atrophy our driving skills. After automatic parallel parking is used, do you think people will still know how to do it manually when they are in a car that does not have this feature?

    Stories of cars that can partially self-drive were used while the driver was watching a movie, only to have the car hit a highway wall, moving van or other, and killing the driver, are credible. When the human brain is not sufficiently engaged it turns its attention to other tasks, leaving the original tasks to complete automatic operation. Often times this results in death for the operator.

The human brain is more complex than we believe. Automate a task and the mind goes elsewhere, the skills required to do the task are then forgotten. More active participation is required in order to keep a human’s attention, and continue to keep a specific skill.

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