Saturday, February 13, 2016

On Command F: a Bittersweet Function

I tell my students of the magic of "command F" on Macs and "control F" on PCs. This F function key, that can find a word or phrase anywhere in the text, is a game-changer when hunting for the best quotation or for that juicy bit of information or when searching through lines of code to add a fancy new feature to a blog. But it has a dark side.

Now when I try to skim through a hard-copy document, like a book, I grow impatient with the task. If I suddenly realize the brilliant acuity of a passage a few pages back, it's painful to have to skim over what I've already read to find it. Sure I can try to laugh it off, ignore that irritating feeling, and persist. But that niggling feeling continues to torment my brain, hampering my focus, and making it even more difficult to skim with any skill. This is a skill I was once lauded for (perhaps owing to my scarcity of abilities). Now I get grumbly after a few pages, and, after a few more, I desperately want to relinquish the pursuit. It takes a steely resolve now to do something I used to do effortlessly. It could be as time-consuming as always, but the effort is marred with the knowledge that there is an easier way.

More than two millennia ago, Socrates warned against putting words in print because those new-fangled books would destroy the memories - and hence the minds - of the populous. Without exercising our minds by demanding more and more of their talents, they'll atrophy. Current brain science concurs, and my anecdote adds further evidence to the pile. If we stop doing a task as often, the pathways in our brain get sluggish, and we can no longer do the task as well.
“As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit…the chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons progam us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away....“If we stop exercising our mental skills…we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead….the possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains. That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What is does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become…the paths of least resistance” (34-35).
It sometimes feels like we're left with two options: either we improve the technology so we never need our brains to do such a menial task again (a command F-bot for print), or we avoid the technology, or at least avoid reliance on the technology, in order to strengthen our brain's ability to attack that text and prevent skills from being 'pruned away.' It seems like a no-brainer to take up the technology for all it's worth but for the loss of our sense of industry and usefulness.

It makes me worry a bit about self-driving cars. Will we all become incompetent drivers, or perhaps more incompetent is appropriate here? But then again, will it even matter if that skill becomes obsolete? Maybe it's better if we don't have to learn to pay attention to the road. Our car can takes us to work and home without commanding our attention so we can pay for all our stuff we bought online during our daily commute!

But then, what about sex robots? Will we become a culture annoyed with the incompetence of a human partner when we could have the accuracy and effortlessness of a sex toy that never demands a turn? Are we already impatient with imperfection?

I'm glad that books grew to be commonplace, and I spend no time lamenting my inability to remember epic tales in detail. Maybe in 2,000 years, if we're still here and still have enough resources for advances in technology, we'll think it funny that people ever used birth control or fertility drugs or prostitutes when they could have just had sex with programmable machines without all the hassles. And why be concerned with our ability to find information in a book when we can likely find the book online (or put it online ourselves) and then let the computer skim for us?


Our ability to hone skills is tied to our feelings of self-worth. If we have fewer skills that matter, then we won't matter. Students will stop coming to me to find a specific quote in a lengthy essay and show delight with how quickly I can do it. They won't need my help. We might laud independence to our detriment. I have a friend who can rhyme off the birthdays of every person she knows, but facebook notifications have already rendered her skill redundant. And car-chases will no longer draw a crowd to a film like these:

(They always leave out a favourite:)

The loss of an ability to give pleasure to one another could be the most profound disruption to our culture. Honing personal skills that are exclusively developed to suit the particular taste of one other person enhances a recognition and knowledge of the other in a depth that conversation merely skims. A robot could be programmed to hit the mark perfectly every time, but this is a classic case of the perfect being enemy of the good. And it's never as simple and universal as it's presented in media:

Obviously skill-destroying technology is not always an all or nothing situation nor is it always a problem.  I can't remember any friends' phone numbers or e-mail addresses any more because I don't have to, but I'm happy I no longer have any use for a washboard besides possibly in a rhythm section of a band. How soon before we all forget skills and later deeply regret their loss? It might be useful to consider how necessary each piece technology is to our lives relative to how useful the eroding skills may be to our sense of self-worth.

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