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Kelly Cheek
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Comfortably Dumb

I hesitate to write this, since almost everything I do in a creative and work nature is done on a computer. But a new book makes the case that computers may be making us dumb.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage, says that automation erodes our skills, causing what he calls “automation complacency.” With computers programmed to perform tasks with greater accuracy, and without experiencing fatigue or boredom, our own skills are gradually wasting away.

He gives the example of airline pilots. Not so very long ago, a pilot actually flew the plane. Now, for the most part, his or her job consists of looking at computer screens and entering data, while the plane is on autopilot. Yes, the pilot has to know how to manually fly the plane, but it’s no longer something that is put into practice very much. The pilot is basically a computer operator. As a result, Carr says, “it’s making them more complacent . . . they begin to tune out, they lose situational awareness and so when something goes wrong, you suddenly see people making mistakes in high-risk situations.”

Now, I haven’t read the book yet, so don’t take this as a review. But he makes a good point. (Could people with computers be the reason for the glut of [un]reality shows on TV?)

Okay, so most of us are not commercial airline pilots. But think about this on a smaller scale. Most of us have smart phones, essentially hand-held computers. How many phone numbers do you know? Your own, certainly, but how many others? We don’t have to remember phone numbers anymore. Our phone stores them for us. As long as we can at least remember the name of the person we want to talk to, our phone can connect us.

We don’t have to remember when a favorite TV show is on, or what channel it’s on. We can program our DVR to record it every time, even if the network does a sneaky day or time change on us.

We don’t have to know how to drive somewhere, because our GPS will tell us how to get there. And if, despite that, we still take a wrong turn, she will crankily tell us what to do to get back on course.

We don’t even have to ‘think on our feet’ and speak fluently, because we can send text messages that we’ve taken the time to edit and make as perfect as possible. (That’s not to say that people actually do that, but they could if they so desired.)

All these things are wonderful. They’ve made our lives better, more comfortable, in a number of ways. And Nicholas Carr agrees. Modern technology is great. But there is a ‘dark side,’ in that we’re not engaging in hard tasks as much as we used to. And as a result, our skills atrophy from disuse.

This dumbing down of computer users could also account for the excess of stupid political memes on Facebook. (And by stupid, I mean the opposite of my own view.)

So what can we do to battle this automation complacency? How the hell would I know? I’m just someone who listens to the voices in my head and tries to transcribe them onto a blank page. And honestly, some of it may be beyond our own control anyway, as our employers move toward greater automation and less human interaction.

But at least on a personal level, maybe we can put those smart phones down occasionally and engage our mouths. Look at the person you’re with and actually engage with them. Give your fingers a rest and exercise your tongue.

I mean talk!

I don’t know if Nicholas Carr has any suggestions on that topic. Maybe I should read his book. (I wonder if I can get my computer to read it to me.)