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Dumbing the World Down with Technology January 8, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Science & Technology, Technology.

In today’s update from CES, Robert Scoble makes reference to a new product from Celestron called the Sky Scout. In reading a response from Brad Root, I felt like I was hearing something familiar, and realized it was my own words about “dumbing people down” with technology.

Sitting on the Shoulders of Giants?

These thoughts started when I was debating the practice of keeping formulas for electronic principles in a notebook or textbook handy, instead of being forced to learn the principles behind the formulas. For example, if I understand capacitive reactance, it’s not going to be hard for me to differentiate between 1/(2 pi * F * C) and (2 pi * F * L). If I don’t understand the principles, I might be able to do some simple electronic work, but my ability to think outside the box will be severely affected.

This is what I frequently describe as “Malcom’s complaint.” In Michael Crighton’s Jurrassic Park, the chaos-theory expert (played by Jeff Goldblum in the movie) suggests to the scientists that “you were so excited about what you could do that you never stopped to ask if you should. Are we so reliant upon technology, even for everyday things, that we cannot exist without it? My cell phone and laptop are integrated into my daily existence at such a depth that if I go without them, I experience something close to dependency withdrawal. Even if I can do this, should I?

When does technology become my ally, and when does it become my foe? In other words, is there a point in time when the time-savers that we put into our lives actually inhibit our ability to do useful things?

HTML vs Plain Text

For some, this is similar to dressing up to-do lists or other trivial documents with fancy fonts and formatting, in that we are layering technology on top of something that doesn’t really require it. Adding nice fonts doesn’t really add to the communication… does it? Does nice formatting provide context? Do different fonts connote meaning upon the text that would otherwise require lots of additional words?

Sometimes, they do.

Back to the Scout in the Sky

This brings me back to my thoughts about the Sky Scout. I can’t help but feel that the automation provided by this device somehow “dumbs down” the user. Instead of them learning more about the stars and and planets, I’m afraid they’ll learn less. Instead of spending $400 on a better telescope that might allow them to peer deeper into the past (since that’s what we’re doing whenever we look into the night sky), they’ll have the information handed to them, without having to do any research.

Hmmm… a wave of “old fogey” feelings are starting to wash up here. “Back in my day, we didn’t have those fancy schmancy gadgets to tell us which stars were which. We set up our equatorial mounts, adjusted the azimuth manually, and then let the auto-tracking keep the star in the field of view while we looked it up on old-fashioned map that we bought on the Internet.”

How is this march of technology different from all those in the past? Did the monks, who hand-copied scripture for generations, look at Gutenburg and dismiss out of hand the quality of a printed work that didn’t require such meticulous skill for every copy? How is it that those of the “printed word” generation can look so disdainfully at me when I do a quick Google to answer some obscure question that came up in a conversation? Where do we draw the line?

All I know is, thinking about this makes me feel very old.


1. Brad Root - January 12, 2006

Good to know that someone (much older than myself, 😉 feels the same way as I do. The only feedback I’ve gotten on my comments about the SkyScout (mostly in private) have been negative.

Like I said in my post, if people don’t want to actually look at the sky for themselves, they could just get a copy of Starry Night. But, enough ranting.

I come from the, somewhat silly, school of thought that people should do things the hard way, rather than the new and fashionable easy way.

2. timthefoolman - January 17, 2006

Much older??? 😀

Hopefully, you’ll find more agreement in the future. As for the hard way versus the easy way, I’m all for the easy way when it makes sense. This is akin to the Army Ranger commercials that say, “A Ranger never does things the easy way.” So instead of walking in the front door (the easy way), they blast a hole in the roof and repel down from a chopper?

That always made me go… hmmm…


3. Old_Phogy - May 25, 2006

I blame Tim Berners-Lee for opening up my beloved Usenet to this kind of drivel.

4. timthefoolman - May 25, 2006

I second that emotion… I think. 😀

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