We are becoming incapable of thinking for ourselves

The Apple Watch will start shipping in the next few weeks and as is becoming customary, we’ll probably see people queuing around the block determined to be among the first owners. Apple won’t be the first to enter this market, but they will surely further raise the profile of wearables and encourage technology development in areas which we can’t yet imagine.

At the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet conference in February, Sir Tim Cook recently said “a lot of doctors believe sitting is the new cancer“, explaining that if you’ve been sitting for almost an hour the Apple Watch reminds you to get up.

Is this a brilliant use of technology or an indication of how lazy we’ve become? Is it just the latest step towards a world in which we don’t need to think for ourselves?

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[Photo credit: www.NationalGeographic.com]

Improving technology always makes new things possible, and this is generally a good thing. But there are often unintended consequences which aren’t easy to predict. The mass-adoption of satellite navigation systems has seen countless examples of drivers abdicating their responsibility for navigation and getting into a mess. Similar failures have resulted from word-processor auto-correct features. These aren’t examples of technology failing; they are the result of over-dependence on the technology and a failure to apply common sense and safeguards. But when the available tools are so alluring, and offer so many other benefits it is easy to miss the blindingly obvious, and a gradual decline in personal responsibility seems inevitable. We all know these things happen and are aware of the consequences but the fact that they continue to happen is further evidence of our fallibility and our over-dependence, or addiction.

Clearly we can’t “un-invent” technology for fear of it being used irresponsibly, but true progress can only result from an accompanied change in behaviour of the key players. This requires their active participation but this typically happens at a slower pace and lags behind the technology.

There is a fine line between simply offering advice, and actually stepping-in to take control. If I misspell a word and see it underlined in red, I am likely to think about it and fix it. And in so doing, I may learn something and eventually not make the same mistake again. If instead, the word is automatically corrected without my involvement, then I won’t learn anything and won’t change my behaviour. I will continue to make the same mistake blissfully unaware until the time when technology is not there to help, and I find myself on my own.

So how helpful are these features in the long-term? Would they be better to advise or to fix; to suggest how or to actually do?

Stepping-in to take control is exactly what the driverless car is designed to do. With human error being such a major factor in all car accidents, driverless cars can deliver great safety benefit. But will this result in drivers taking  less responsibility for their actions? Will it be accompanied by an increase in the number of people finding themselves in completely the wrong place because of a silly mistake when selecting their destination? A fat-fingered stab at a list, or a poorly-recognised verbal instruction can easily select the wrong destination and a passenger who expects the car do do everything automatically may be blissfully unaware until it is too late.

Organisations usually protect themselves with legal smallprint. Will the Apple Watch include a clause somewhere suggesting that it is used “as part of a balanced physical exercise regime“? Why don’t traditional watches come with smallprint suggesting they should not be relied upon as a timekeeping device? How have paper maps survived for so long without the need for smallprint advising that they should only be used by competent and responsible map-readers? Do we really need to be reminded to get up and walk around every 50 minutes?

Where will it all end” isn’t the right question, as it will be a continuous evolution rather than an end. But maybe now is the time to ask the question “why can’t we think for ourselves anymore, and how can we make best use of technology whilst maintaining responsibility for our own actions?

Further reading

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Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
Inixiti – Improving graduate employability. Click here to visit the website.

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