Allow me to share a secret: My handwriting is atrocious. If it were not for the keyboard upon which my fingers are tapping and the laptop that is processing the result of my taps, this article would not be happening.
I’ve always had poor handwriting. But, it’s gotten worse over time. Other than the occasional grocery list, I don’t write things out by hand anymore. It’s just me and the keyboards on my laptop and phone. Luckily, my mind still works—sort of. The stuff I produce has gotten better. Using a computer allows me to edit faster. But, I don’t retrieve words as quickly as I used to. I find myself using online tools continually during a writing session. I could blame age for the impediment. And that may be the case. But still, a part of me says, “Why remember words when I can just grope around a thesaurus to find what I need?” That I can still spell most words correctly is a bit of miracle. But then again, a computer has been correcting my spelling for the last 25 years.
I’ll share another secret: I don’t remember phone numbers anymore. At one time, I had all the phone numbers associated with all those close to me committed to memory. I knew the phone numbers of my sister, parents, in-laws, friends, steady customers and even my favorite restaurants. I didn’t have to look anything up online. I just carried the numbers around in my head. Now, the only numbers I have memorized are my own and my wife’s. When I want to talk to my sister, I look up her name in the contact list on my cell phone and hit the “call” button. When I am in my bluetooth-enabled car, I just say, “call sister.” The machines do the rest.
I can still sum a short list of numbers in my head. Also, I can multiply two numbers together as long as neither number is greater than a thousand. If I want to do multiple operations—say, add some numbers up and then divide by another—I need to use a calculator. I haven’t tried to do this sort of arithmetic on paper in a long time. Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. Dunno. It’s just easier to use a calculator.
I still read a lot. But I find that I spend more time learning things by watching videos on YouTube. In fact, I just got through brushing up on JMeter by watching a playlist of 20 videos on the topic. It took me about two days. I can’t remember the last time I spent two days completely engaged in reading a technology book. It’s embarrassing to say this, given that I am a technology writer.
But, there is good news here: I can still make change. I learned how to do this before cash registers reported the change to give back upon purchase. You start with the sale amount and work your way through the cash drawer taking out coins and bills until you reach the amount the customer gave you. Funny that I should remember this small piece of mental acrobatics. But, then again, I haven’t used a cash register in a very long time. Making change has yet to be made simple for me.
However, the computers I use continually throughout my day make things very simple. They allow me to write out my thoughts clearly. They tell me when to pay my bills. They correct my spelling. They make going to the grocery store a breeze. I just take want I want from the shelves, put my credit card into the card reader at the automated checkout line and pay only what is due—no cash required, no change made.
Automation has made me really smart in a few areas and helpless in most others. I can design an elegant microservice. I am wicked good at working my way through the ins and outs of Amazon Web Services. I can create the automation code that tests my software so that Jenkins can move everything along the deployment path easily and reliably. Yet, I have no idea how to fix my car when the warning lights go off. I don’t know how to repair my cell phone when it stops working. If my voice-responsive TV no longer delivers video on demand, I’m not even sure who to call. The cable company? Netflix? Linksys? Samsung? Denon? When my microwave breaks down, I throw it out.
My world is simple on the surface and yet terribly complex underneath.
At one time, the complexities were more apparent. Information was not at our fingertips. Research meant hours in the library poring over the card catalog. Chemistry was part of professional photography. Acting meant memorizing a script that had to be recited over a period of hours, not minutes. Things were more difficult then. But, we sort of figured it out. We had the ability to negotiate the complexities of life. We had no choice. The machines had yet to be invented.
Now the machines have been invented. Overall, they have been good to us. Smallpox is gone. Lasik is here. Doors open before us automatically, no pushing required. Delivery is overnight, if not same day. Should I want to run my program on a supercomputer, all I need is an AWS account bound to a credit card. Just 1 percent of the population in the United States feeds the rest of the country. We don’t lack for toilet paper.
Technology is a wonderful thing.
But, I can’t help but wonder what becomes of a culture when everything is automated to essential simplicity. What happens over generations when we no longer need to know how to write legibly, remember a phone number or make change? How will our minds work when the stuff that used to make our minds work goes away? I don’t know. I am still trying to figure it out. In the meantime, I’ll leave it up to you to decide.