Friday, April 05, 2013

Worst possible skill to lose

The problem has been around forever, said a friend, explaining how eidetic memory was the first to go; people used to be able to memorize entire books, or thousands of pages of them, like The Odyssey, for example, but they lost those abilities when writing systems came around, then, when the printing press came around, it was curtains for that kind of skills. The phone and the calculator brought similar downfalls; the pattern is that people accept a new technological innovation, and the collective skills of the human race take a dive.

There are those who argue that it doesn't matter, because we don't need those skills anymore. So, for example, people used to remember the capital of every state, but now you can google it in minutes, and everyone has google on their phone, so people don't need to carry that information around with them now. People shrug and forget about it as if it doesn't amount to much.

The most alarming thing I saw in the pattern was that people invariably fail to question the wisdom of letting the human race lose these skills. The pattern goes like this: the innovation appears to be great; everyone adopts it; you feel ridiculous if you don't adopt it; you lose skills without thinking about it; sometimes people question what's happening but people ignore them; the human race goes on, slightly dumber, but able to use the extra space in our heads. The skills I was most interested in, of course, were the ability to spell, and the ability to remember grammatical things, but there are more: ability to drive a stick shift, ability to grow a vegetable or bake a pie, ability to perform various mathematical calculations. People have lost a lot of things.

But this, to me, is the most alarming. I said to my class the other day, you should know how to explain how to get somewhere around town, how to get to the bus station, for example, or how to get to the rec center. No, we don't need to, they said. You have to know how to get out your phone and type the place into it, you don't have to know directions. People don't use directions. They don't know how to tell about them, or how to follow them. Only Siri knows that, Siri takes care of it. She of course tells us, while we're in our car, how to get to the restaurant.

It took me a while to realize how profound that was. Of course, I was always big on orientation in space; it was always important to me to know where I was and how to get back home, for example. I couldn't live with myself if I lost track of that kind of information. I guess that makes me an old-schooler, because young people apparently will do fine without this kind of skill. As long as you have your phone, who will need to know where they are, or how to get somewhere?

I have this picture in my mind of someone who lost his or her phone, or was unable to recharge it, and therefore became utterly, completely lost. This would be quite tragic. No sense worrying about it, though.



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