Smart Technology, Dumb People


By Samuel Greengard

It's nothing short of a paradox that the smarter we build computers and the better we build technology the dumber we seem to get. We've all heard stories of people driving the wrong way down a one-way street or into a fast food drive-through because their car's navigation system told them to do so. There's also an uptick in the number of people wandering into wilderness areas entirely unprepared and, because they have a mobile phone, calling rangers to ask where they can find water or supplies.

These may seem like fringe examples. Yet, we're all being sucked into the tractor beam in one way or another. Today, many young people can't add or multiply because they have only learned how to push the right sequence of buttons on a calculator. When the power goes out or a computer system goes down, they're completely lost. Let's not even get into a discussion about how people use Wikipedia or spread wildly inaccurate information on Facebook simply because a friend posted something that appears completely convincing.

One thing that's both a blessing and a curse about computers is that we don't have to cram our brains full of rote information and swim through the murky undercurrent of semi-useless information. On the other hand, we increasingly adopt mental shortcuts and lose our connection to the geography between facts, logic and actions. Too often, we take the easy route to results ... but wind up with diminished results.

These changes affect our brains and behavior in ways that we could never have anticipated. For example, the more life-saving medical technology that exists and the greater the ability for the healthcare system to treat disease, the more double bacon cheeseburgers with fries we eat. We get fatter and adopt less healthy lifestyles while expecting technology to bail us out.

Of course, technology is neither good nor bad. It simply exists. However, if we're willing to swap thinking and analysis for the simplicity and convenience of automation--and this goes for businesses and their IT departments as well--we're eventually going to find ourselves questioning whether we're on the road to progress or looping through a perpetual fast food drive through that serves up tasty treats but leads absolutely nowhere.