Wed, Apr 15, 2009 - Page 9 News List

The gadget age satisfies us

Critics suggest the latest devices make us look stupid, but in fact they are giving us new skills in dealing with a more complex world

By Stephen Bayley  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON


Aircraft have a safety device called the ground proximity warning system (GPWS). It alerts the pilot to the imminent danger of what is technically known as “controlled flight into terrain” or what we would call a crash. Aviation safety enthusiasts often morbidly discuss a possibly apocryphal remark made as a Colombian airliner approached Madrid’s Barajas airport too low. After the accident, investigators discovered the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) catching the synthesized voice of the GPWS (with its annoying North American accent) demanding: “Pull up! Pull up!” Seconds later, the same CVR caught the South American pilot, flushed with low-level machismo, saying: “Shut up, gringo.” The next part of the transcript has the deathly words “sound of impact” in square brackets.

Technology is making our lives faster, moving us through both the real and virtual worlds. We can travel, both in body and mind, more often, with less expense and greater ease. But does technology also make us more stupid? In the beginning IBM, then a manufacturer of mainframes, adopted the slogan: “Machines should work. People should think.”

Fifty years on, that’s a distinction no longer so clear. Is there an unspoken Faustian pact that we gain power at the expense of wisdom?

It’s strange to ask such philosophically profound questions when toying with the latest touch-screen mobile, but let me tell you, thumbing through the garish Vodafone catalogue does inspire such speculations. When we hand over responsibility and knowledge to machines, do we also lose free will? Do sophisticated new technologies enhance our abilities while diminishing our intelligence? Does downloading an “app” of a spirit level on an iPhone, let alone a virtual whoopee cushion, not only make us appear, but also become, stupid?

In the early days of in-car satellite navigation, German newspapers used to love running photographs of the roof of a BMW appearing just above the surface of the Elbe or Danube. The primitive mapping methods recorded only roads, not rivers. The result? Drivers slavishly obeyed instructions to “proceed for 10 miles [16km]” and then found themselves in the drink. As a result, today if you program a satnav in England and set a destination in mainland Europe, it will prudently say: “Warning! Channel crossing en route.”

All new technologies, going back to fire and the wheel, by way of movable type and light bulbs, de-skill people. Old crafts are abandoned or lost in favor of automation. And when you de-skill someone, you alter not only his culture, but his personality. Satnav has done this to the UK’s black-cab drivers. Once this proud tribe had a private religion known as the Knowledge; all of London’s streets had to be memorized. It was an amazing feat achieved only after great effort, and consequently it was admired and therefore empowering and dignifying. The Knowledge gave black-cab drivers what the marketeers call a “point of difference.”

Now any larrikin can buy a satnav for £199 (US$295) and tell you how to get from Edmonton to Peckham by using rat runs. The USP of the black cab has disappeared in a miasma of pixels. As a result, some urban anthropologists have noted a change in behavior of cab drivers. Once known for courtesy and reliability, many have become sullen and aggressive. This is because technology has democratized their proprietary knowledge and beliefs.

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