computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

GPS and ugly shoes: Tech and mental flabbiness

GPS from mroachI’ve been on holiday recently, and once again borrowed my Father-in-law’s GPS for the car. It gets me thinking. The GPS is fun to use, and sometimes quite useful, but it can also get one into trouble since it replaces part of the thinking process without thinking itself.

We humans are actually quite good at orienting ourselves in space, extrapolating from incomplete information and reassessing based on observations. It’s probably healthy to stretch this capacity once in a while. The trouble with the GPS is that one quickly gets a far more passive attitude to navigation.
Inky Bob's compass pic
I think of the parallel to the physical world. It’s natural for us humans to find ways of saving energy and making jobs easier. Cars, elevators, wood-splitting machines – thousands of inventions make our lives easier. The trouble is that our bodies are adapted to an active lifestyle and all these inventions actually make us sick. Obesity and other effects of a sedentary lifestyle such as back problems have become major health issues in the western world. There is a growing awareness that we need to be far more physically active than we are, but so far this has mostly extended to filling up our free time with compensatory exercise. We drive to work, sit at our desks and then use the exercise room on our break. A bit absurd?

A new trend is slowly appearing however, based on trying to adapt our everyday life to our needs. I have, for instance, become one of those people who wear those silly-looking shoes designed to simulate walking on a soft, uneven surface. F_DSC01283  We are poorly adapted for the hard, flat floors that I walk on all day long, so the idea is that by simulating the kind of surface we are adapted to walk on (soft, uneven), we can avoid some of the health problems of modern life. In this case, poor posture, reduced balance, short hamstrings, etc. These shoes are also harder to walk on, removing some of the ease of the modern lifestyle and re-inserting more physical work into daily routine.

Now, the GPS makes me wonder if we have started doing the same thing to our minds that we have done to our bodies: our brains, like our bodies, need exercise, and we are increasingly getting machines to do the tedious work of thinking for us. How does this affect us? I was helping a year nine student with a math problem a while back and part of the path to the solution required him to find 3 times 49. To my surprise (and dismay), he reached for his calculator.

Now, I’ve thought about this and anyone who uses a calculator to find the product of 3 and 49 is …well, damaged by access to calculators. For any normal person, multiplying 3 by 50 and then subtracting 3 is much, much faster than doing the work with a calculator, so dependency on calculators is actually slowing this person down. There are other issues here, however. This student didn’t even consider for a moment an alternative to his calculator, so it seems that calculator use has encouraged a passive attitude to numbers. Math is the subject that is most often a problem for schoolkids, so I wonder if we aren’t worsening the situation by teaching them dependency on pacifying tools.

I don’t mean to be a Luddite. We have become capable of so much more by ‘extending our brains’ onto external aids. Think of how much more we can do with just a pencil and a piece of paper than without. I’m a better shopper when I use a shopping list. Although I could practice mnemonics to use instead of my list, I prefer to use my brain power on other things. There is an urban myth about Albert Einstein not knowing his own telephone number. He had it written down if he needed it and could free brain space for more important things.

Whether this story is true or not, there is a point here. Tools make us capable of more, amplifying muscle or brain power and taking over mundane, repetitive tasks so that we can focus on the big stuff. To get back to the navigation example: I can navigate without a compass, but I’m much, much better if I have a compass. Isn’t the GPS just another step up? To think of my physical parallel: I live in an apartment building and wouldn’t want to get rid of my elevator. When my fridge dies, I don’t want to haul it down the stairs. The trick is to not take the elevator when I don’t have a fridge to carry. Walk to the store, bicycle to work, etc.  These things get talked about all the time. Do we need to start talking about the mental equivalents?


(I seem to remember reading a similar piece a while back, also taking a GPS as a point of departure. Can anyone remember seeing it?)
Photo credit: mraoch, Inky Bob

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