Saturday, 5 June 2010

Dumb Down, Deeper and Down

I was just replying to a friend of mine's wall post about 'Video Killed The Radio Star' and I started thinking about technology. Not 'does one level of technology kill its predecessor?' because we know the answer to that question. But if you don't, do you want to buy a Megadrive? I was thinking about what technology kills in us.

I've got no proof that technology actually wipes out skills we've acquired, but it certainly takes away the need for them. When we built a calculator, mental arithmetic became less relevant. When we wrote a spell-checker, so did the dictionary. When we had our first TVs, we had to remember what time our programmes were on, or we'd miss them. The VCR revolution meant we would only have to programme that information in once a week. The new wave of Sky digiboxes and hard drive recorders let us tick a programme we like and it will record it for as long as possible, every time it is on. The first videogames tested our skills, our reflexes, our strategic thinking. Many modern games (especially but not limited to on-line farming simulators) have removed the need for any skill but hand-eye co-ordination. Navigation was a skill much beloved of drivers. Now navigation is limited to entering a postcode into a GPS and becoming its bitch. Turn left now! Yes, oh master...

The CD came, which was a good thing. With its better sound quality, instant access to tracks, and almost indestructible surface (allegedly but dishonestly), the compact disc entirely displaced the cassette tape. But the tape taught people valuable skills. Through its constant insistence on wrapping tape around its innards and those of the player, it required maintenance on a regular basis with the sort of tiny screwdriver that make their wielder feel like an engineer. Once the engineer's job was done, it was time for the surgeon, rolling tape back on the rollers, trying to reverse any folds, and all without touching the front or back of the tape. It must be done with the sides. It might seem like a small example, but it was many people's first experience of DIY. It gave them confidence that the land of DIY was not some distant planet, but something they already had. Repairing a tape might seem like a pretty useless skill, until you try fixing a paper jam on a photocopier. Then you realise exactly the same principles apply.

Is technology dumbing us down a bad thing? If technology has given us a way to live without certain skills, is there any need to keep them? Well, yes. Video games used to test our reaction speeds. They may save our life some day. Learning to read a map or a compass teaches spatial awareness. Learning arithmetic is a step on the way to learning logic, and that can be applied to everything except pesky human emotions. Don't try applying logic to them. You'll get in all sorts of trouble. Skills gained in learning to remember the TV times can be applied to all manner of situations. There is usually a logic to it (every weekday, channel 4 at 6 0'clock will show the Simpsons, followed by Hollyoaks, followed by the news, for example). And discovering the rules is another huge bound down the road of logic. I am talking of this as if it were an old man reminiscing for his youth, but I'm only talking about 20 - 30 years ago. When I was a kid, I read the TV guide, saw the patterns, found easier ways of remembering them, and applied this to the rest of my studies, especially maths. It's hard to explain but I saw the TV guide in my head in 3D reduced to its constituent parts and there were brackets around some of them. It put algebra into context. Would I have been so into maths without this epiphany? Probably not. Would a kid nowadays have this experience? No. He would never need to study the TV guide. What's the point? Everything he wants is already recorded.

Yeah, I know the last example makes me look a tad geeky. I was about 12, I looked into a TV guide full of the A Team, the Sweeney, Knight Rider and James Bond movies and I saw algebraic parentheses and variables filling slots on the schedule in line with some underlying logical law. But I did.

I know about chaos theory. I know about fractals and quantum mechanics. I understand why Newton's 'clockwork universe' cannot be. But I wish it could. Because the things in my life I seem to remember are moments like the above, when I can show that there is an underlying order to the world, or at least a small part of it.

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