Technology: lowering intelligence, or the alchemy we didn’t know we had?

Eduardo is an early Homo sapien. Hunting, killing, gathering, eating, drinking, defecating, procreating, and sleeping used to take up all of his time. One day, someone came along and inadvertently showed him how to cut in half the amount of time it took to do most of his daily duties. Territorial instincts compel Eduardo to kill his educator, but curiosity drives him to begin practising the strange, occult ideas, and he soon finds that he prefers the new way to the old, his (possibly) innate recognition of the efficiency of it all gently pushing him in the direction of Progress. Boredom now becomes a problem, and Eduardo begins to roam the plains in search of something to do with his free time. Much of it passes, during which he becomes increasingly agitated, and his family notice change for the worse in him. Eventually, with his mind in knots over how he should now live, he jumps off a cliff one afternoon, plummeting to a very messy death. His family moves on with their lives, and, without batting an eyelid, the children, in providing for themselves, utilise the very methods and practices that drove poor Eduardo to despair.

An all-too-common concern of the information age is the idea of our grey matter drying up due to under stimulation. We’re terrified of what will become of our children, so dependent on technology for the basics have they become.

It’s true that many twelve-year-olds today will look to their phone or some computer application or other to solve a bit of arithmetic that the most number-shy among us – us being any of the previous generations, also known as the people whose turn it is to chastise today’s youth for their lack of effort and general apathy – would have had for breakfast in the good old days, the time before near-instantaneous communication from the palm of your hand, before credit and debit cards negated the requirement to carry large sums of cash, before technology-assisted surgery…you know, the good times we had before dissemination of information became a species-wide obsession and machines began to use more energy than we need for basic survival. Oh, hang on, we don’t need any energy to survive. Not one iota. What we do need it for, though, is to live. Yes, to really, fully live a life free of the shackles that labour-intensive, non-automated chores tend to be.

Basic survival. A lofty ambition for so many of the world’s poor. A romantic notion held in high regard by many first world nostalgics, some of whom will pay through the nose to have their electronic devices confiscated from them on weekend retreats into the wilderness, where they can ‘reconnect with their roots and let nature do as it will, man.’ It’s also something nobody really wants anymore. The poor of the world settle for it; the rich scoff. And why do we look down our noses at it?

Because we firmly believe in Progress.

Some argue that Progress is not always a good thing, and maybe this is true in the case of sweatshops producing goods for western consumption, but then that very activity might not fit so neatly were the strictest definition of the word adhered to. The bulk of the time, however, the argument against Progress amounts to no more than a general attitude of resistance towards change.

Everything is new once, and a lot of the things we take for granted now were once frowned upon, believed to be wholly unneccesary abominations that would do us more harm than good, and thought to represent a barrier to human development.

An example illustrating the good inherent in real progress:

Adam shares his idea with Brian, who records it on a tablet of stone. A hundred years later, Chris makes copies of the tablet and spreads the word. Dan receives the word and develops an antidote based on an extrapolation of the original idea. Evelyn’s pregnancy is complicated, but, thanks to the antidote, mother and infant – Frances – survive. In time, Frances give birth to Gutenburg, who develops the printing press, which facilitates the prodigious proliferation of information.

Which step of the above would you remove, and why?

Would you take back the discovery of fire and cooking? The invention/discovery of: the wheel? the plough? gunpowder (not forgetting, of course, that wheels and ploughs can kill, too)? the printing press? penicillin? radium? the telephone? transistors and microchips? the internet?

I don’t believe very many of us would take back many of these things, and I say this because, through all of these tools and inventions and ideas – known by the umbrella term ‘Progress’ – we have learned to manipulate the one thing which plagues us the most: The Great Master Time. Our finite existence is exactly that – finite – and we save and reclaim precious time with wheels and ploughs and instantaneous communication to our loved ones. But don’t just save time; we have learned to generate and create time. Penicillin and radium have been saving and enhancing lives for a long time now, increasing our lifespans, giving birth to the most precious commodity of all. And every other medical advancement, however small, has been adding on minutes here and there to our lives for as far back as medicine goes. Yes, Progress is the alchemy we didn’t know we had.

So where does this leave the twelve-year-old using the phone calculator for the arithmetic? It leaves him with great scope and bundles of times to work on his all-around intelligence, which is defined by some as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, and what better way to improve an ability than to be given more time to practice it.

To ask him to perform this calculation mentally is quite simply an absurdity in a world full of capable tools and even more capable users. It’s akin to asking someone to walk twenty miles to deliver a message of the utmost importance, when, sitting in your pocket the whole time, is the latest incarnation of Alexander Graham Bell’s crowning glory.

The tool exists…so use it wisely. Time is created for us…so use it well. Don’t end up like Eduardo.

The problem is ourselves. We have been given the gift of time, and if we don’t use it well, then that’s certainly not Progress’s fault.

Stop complaining about Progress and change, and start living.

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