Don’t turn your brain off

There have always been opponents to new technology. Long before ‘luddites’ smashed the machines that stole the work of men during the Industrial Revolution, many early philosophers (including Socrates) argued that even writing was dangerous technology. They said that the written word was not alive and the act of reading was passive unlike taking part in an argument. This is actually true and during learning, involvement is much better than reading a textbook.

There is another reason why writing is bad technology; it allows us to forget and to use our m emories in a sloppy way which has destroyed the continuity and accuracy of oral tradition which lasted tens of thousands of years. Obviously writing has so many plus points that we tend to overlook these two small handicaps.

But what about other, more recent technological developments where the advantages and disadvantages are far more evenly matched?

New technology makes idle promises that it often fails to keep, or by doing so causes new, unforeseen problems.

In 1980 my great aunt bought a microwave oven. She must have been one of the first people in the north-east to have one. In those days they were heavier, noisier and weirder than they are today. A large number of the family had gathered for Christmas dinner. Aunty Madge was to impress them all. Their Christmas dinner was to be cooked entirely by microwave, 80s style. We can all guess what that meal was like. They had a course of carrots followed by a course of sprouts followed by a course of gravy . I don’t think the turkey was quite edible and the brandy soaked Christmas pudding burst into flames.

New technology is often misunderstood. Around the same time there was the story from America where a woman had put her poodle in the microwave to dry its fur. We of course all know that microwaves cook by vibrating water and salt molecules on the inside of small dogs.

A decade ago a machine was invented that sliced onions perfectly. It peeled and sliced the entire onion into exactly the size of pieces you required. Gone were the days of weeping or getting smelly onion acid on your fingers. Now it was all self contained and perfectly sliced in no time at all. A wonderful labour and hassle saving device. Until of course you tried to clean it. It required disassembly and all the small delicate parts had to be hand washed to remove the onion. So now you were exposed to the tear making acid and the process took ages. Using a simple knife would have been better after-all.

There has been a surge in the number of people who have problems getting to meetings due to over-reliance on sat nav. Satellite navigation is an incredibly sophisticated and complicated technology. Just think about it for a moment. It requires the ability to put a self-powered complex computer system in a geostationary orbit around the Earth. It requires radio transmitters and receivers, advanced micro processors and speech simulators.

It is so wonderfully advanced and useful that people repeatedly get lost using it. “Take the B408 for two miles and then take the third exit onto the B3129” says an emotionless voice. What are you talking about? If you were describing it to a friend you’d say “turn left after the pub”. People place their trust in the machine so much that they turn their brain off and then wonder how they ended up on a farm track in a field instead of at the conference centre.

Technology is neither goo d nor bad of course. It provides us with tools which we can choose to use to make our lives easier. But be careful – there is always a trade off. There’s an argument that the pursuit of technology for it’s own ends is certainly bad, that is when we run into problems.

The best idea may be to apply Occam’s Razor to any new development. Occam’s razor is a principle attributed to the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham which advises economy and simplicity in scientific theories. Occam’s razor states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating, or “shaving off”, those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the theory. Applying the razor to our examples here give us the following simple answers: use a conventional oven, a knife and a map.

So when you are confronted with any new idea, gadget or method, experiment with it by all means, but don’t, on any circumstances, as you turn the gadget on, turn you brain off.

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