Technology: Making us Smarter and Dumber at the Same Time

Tom Coyle
5 min readAug 29, 2019

I have read many articles talking about how technology is either making us smarter or dumber, and one article particularly stood out. The author, Don Peppers, wrote about how being a slave to technology could literally kill you; he noted an example of a man who drove off a highway bridge that had been demolished some years before because that is where the GPS took him. At the same time, technology can make us smarter by removing smaller, tedious tasks and freeing us up to focus on more important, transformational tasks. There is certainly evidence of this, but it is not always a silver bullet.

Skill Atrophy: Technology has always led to the reduction or elimination of certain skills. Recently, one of my colleagues was discussing an article about how most millennials did not know how to drive a standard transmission car and used the article to talk about “all the things this young generation does not know how to do.” I asked him he if knew how to navigate with a map and compass in the woods. When he responded with, “no,” I said that it wasn’t that long ago when the working generation was saying, “these kids today do not know how to use a compass and map.” Going even further back, at some point, the older generation was saying, “these kids today don’t know how to navigate with the stars. They are relying on these compass things.” Consider skills like fire building with only sticks; telling time with the sun; celestial navigation; farming; hunting. At some point in human history, the average person had all of these skills. Today, relatively few could do any of these tasks. Even people with military experience. When I was in the Army, we started fires with lighters. It was not until I went to SERE (Survival, Evasion, resistance, Escape) school where I learned to actually start a fire without any technology. As autonomous cars enter our lives, eventually, you get to the point where the average person will not know how to actually drive a car. The good news is we can control skill atrophy; however, it takes a conscious effort to identify skills you want to retain and then develop a plan to maintain those skills. Going back to the example of the person driving off the bridge that was already demolished, we need to go back the art of route planning. When I enter my destination into my GPS, I look at the overall route. What does it look like? What kind of neighborhoods am I driving through? Has there been any recent construction? The time I spend quickly answering these questions saves me time and gives me peace of mind. You can do all this before you even get to your car.

Reducing Tedious tasks: Skill atrophy is not necessarily a bad thing. Technological innovations freed up the numbers of people required to sustain agriculture, allowing them to learn or specialize in new skills. Once the need for food was met by mass farming, we were able to grow industries as people moved into the cities to work in factories. Last Christmas, I purchased a Rumba and it has significantly reduced the time my wife and I spent simply picking up messes in the kitchen left by our three and one year old. We used the increased time to further grow our business and spend more time with the kids. Next summer, I plan on buying a robotic lawn mower, which will significantly free my time doing that chore. In the work place, artificial intelligence can save time by eliminating lower level tasks that need to be done, but take a disproportionate amount time given the impact of the overall mission. Used correctly, this would give us more time to think and strategize. Now if I can only find a machine to go to my meetings for me…

So technology can free up our time. The danger is using that newly freed time on new wasteful tasks, such as too much social media.

Social Media: I could write an entirely separate article on this topic. Some quick key points here are that on the positive, it is a great way to connect and stay in touch with friends. I was terrible at writing letters or calling people that I did not see every day. Social media has been a great tool for that. It has allowed me to grow and promote my business. It has also been a time saver. Instead of mailing family pictures to all my friends and family, I can post the photos on Facebook and reduce the time I would have spent on that. It also frees my time because if I am struggling with a task, I can quickly go into my Linkedin or Facebook network and find somebody who has tackled the problem before and find a quick solution; even better, I can quickly find somebody to do the task for me.

But it can also be a time waster. I have gone down that social media rabbit whole, commenting on various issues of the day, only to realize I have not made any progress on my “to do” list. I fixed that problem by regulating the amount of time I spend on Facebook. While I do enjoy debating various topics of the day on Facebook, I have decided to not discuss any hot button issues over the weekend. That has worked well for me. Social media can also harm relationships because it is easier to let emotions get the best of us when there is no person sitting across from us; with no person to our immediate front, it is easier to lose your humanity in discussions over various controversial issues.

What it all means: We will, without a doubt, lose certain skills. But we have a degree of control. We can learn skills like how to build a fire without a lighter. We also have to understand that just because we no longer have a skill does not mean it is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know how to farm, but that has not hurt my ability to shop for food. So we should anticipate skills we may lose and debate the impact before it happens. I embrace the time that technology is saving me. I am writing this piece with voice to text software. I find that this software reduces my time — I can quickly speak my ideas into the microphone and then all I need to do is make some quick edits. The overall time it takes to do all of that is significantly less than it took for me to sit in front of a computer and type.

However, there are dangers that if used incorrectly, technology will not address the problems we are trying to fix and may even make them worse. When I was in the Army, we were talking about reducing soldiers’ loads by using technology to make equipment more light weight. However, all that meant is that there was more light weight things to carry. As one of my non-commissioned officers said, “sir, all this light weight equipment is killing me.” Essentially, soldiers today still carry the same weight Roman Legionnaires carried. So as technology proliferates, we need to constantly evaluate its use, benefits, and consequences.

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