Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Technology vs Evolution, a.k.a. The Battle Against The Machines

I love walking aimlessly around a new neighborhood right after moving, taking in the sights and discovering the ins and outs of the place. I particularly relish those moments when I can distinctly feel two disjoint areas of my mental map connecting. Initially, a new area is just a collection of landmarks - there's the palace, and I think the station is somewhere nearby, and there's a Starbucks around here somewhere, and that big road is maybe 15-20 minutes away from that other big road. But without actually experiencing how the sections connect to each other, the map in your head is necessarily incomplete. Maybe you can start in the center and work your way out radially to each of the landmarks, but what about getting from point A to point C? And then one day, as you're leaving point A and you turn the corner, you spot point C 500m up ahead, and the map will thereafter make perfect sense to you.

Just as this feeling came over me again the other day (that's where the stream ends??), I couldn't avoid thinking about how technology obviates the need to ever build this mental map in the first place. Don't get me wrong - I think that Google Maps combined with GPS is the single best feature of modern smartphones. A feature that was literally a concept in a magical universe a decade ago is now so commonplace that we don't bat an eye at it. But it's impossible to ignore the simple reality: GPS makes us dumb. It fights what our minds were evolutionarily evolved to do - complex spatial reasoning. If you constantly rely on GPS, your mind never has the chance to build the mental map.

I've seen this problem especially acutely in cities where people drive a lot, but insist on always using GPS. I have multiple friends in SF that I could place two blocks from the Embarcadero, ask them how to get to 280, and they'd immediately reach for the GPS (for those who are curious, go towards the Bay, then turn right). They literally do not know their way around a neighborhood they've lived in for months if not years.

Why bring evolution into it? Well, spatial reasoning seems to be an evolutionarily adaptive trait. If you can't make it back to the cave, you might get attacked by the sabre-toothed tiger, or die of starvation, or eventually make your way back to find your companion and offspring dead or missing. If you can't build a lay of the land in your mind, you might forage forever in over-foraged areas, or forget how to get back to the river and die of thirst. Humans are incredibly powerful spatial thinkers, and it's extremely unlikely that it's a coincidental trait.

Fast forward six hundred or so generations after the first civilizations started really getting together to form larger towns, cities, and nation-states, and we find a blinking dot on a phone and a computer-generated incorporeal voice in a car threatening this basic yet intricate example of human mental prowess.

Of course, it's not just GPS that makes us dumber. The whole concept of the "exo-brain" is a double-edged sword. Sure, we have unlimited storage at our fingertips, and can call on our phones to instantaneously do calculations that a few decades ago would have required a room full of NASA engineers with slide rules. Yet I can barely remember my own phone number, let alone the hundreds of others in my contact list, which would be somewhat troubling in the event of an emergency. But this is simply a matter of outsourcing memory to a device - it's not threatening to our humanity, merely to our ability to remember and calculate.

Little by little, apps and technology are trying to replace the very things that make us human. Lately, there has been a rash of services in the "efficiency" market. Want artisanal bread and organic heirloom tomatoes delivered to your doorstep? There's an app for that. Standing outside a restaurant and can't get up the nerve to go inside and check it out? Plenty of local recommendation services to your rescue. And my favorite in this genre, without a doubt, is canned serendipity. The optimists claim that technology is meant to bring us together even more in the real world. Yet the reality of subways full of people staring down at small rectangles speaks otherwise.

The common thread for all of these services is that they aim to replace human interaction. It wasn't that long ago that we would ask people (real human beings!) for directions when we were lost. It wasn't that long ago that we would stroll around markets and talk to shopkeepers to see what's fresh, what looks good, what's in season. We didn't need to post pictures of food to convince our friends we were leading interesting lives - they already knew, because we spoke to each other. Often. We weren't engaged in the Sisyphean task of searching for emotional fulfillment in bits and bytes and follows and likes - we were living, out among other humans in the real world.

Make no mistake - Skynet is not the immediate threat. You're not going to wake up one day and be attacked by your Roomba. No, the immediate threat is the outsourcing of our humanity, the things that make us human, to machines. The things that bring us together to laugh, to cry, to fight, to love, to smile. Slowly but surely, we are giving our humanity away to technology. We're letting it think for us, remember for us, tell us what to do, take us from place to place, and most dangerously, we're outsourcing our emotions. There will be no Judgment Day. No, there is no need for a glorious battle when we are already freely surrendering to the machines.

Luckily, it's early in the war, and there has been some resistance. People are starting to realize the danger of over-reliance on technology. They're remembering the joy of going somewhere or doing something without knowing how it's going to turn out. They're putting their devices down and getting back together as friends, couples, and families, and doing what humans were designed to do - sharing emotions and feelings with one another, face-to-face. I'm a long-term optimist - I think humans will win this battle against technology, because the more that the interactions that we literally need to survive are wrested away, the more innate defense mechanisms will kick in to protect us. Yet we can consciously decide to win this war before it goes any further. We can make a decision to prioritize humans over technology. We can seek balance rather than overstimulation. We can remember the best moments in our lives, and realize that none of these were spent with our eyes occluded by a tiny slab of aluminum and glass.

We can remember what it's like to be human, and the rest will take care of itself.


  1. Now I know why you created the emoticon feature in Gmail!

    Dude, emotions are inefficient that's why they're going away.

  2. =). Emoticons make people smile. That makes me happy.