How technology made us hyper-capable – and helpless

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Tech enables us to do more while understanding less. That’s fine, until there’s a glitch – which is why the US navy is teaching sailors how to navigate by the stars

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Thursday 23 June 2016

Original Article Published on TheGuardian.com

The smartphone in your hand enables you to record a video, edit it and send it around the world. With your phone, you can navigate in cities, buy a car, track your vital signs and accomplish thousands of other tasks. And so?

Each of those activities used to demand learning specific skills and acquiring the necessary resources to do them. Making a film? First, get a movie camera and the supporting technologies (film, lights, editing equipment). Second, learn how to use them and hire a crew. Third, shoot the movie. Fourth, develop and edit the film. Fifth, make copies and distribute them.

Now all of those tasks are solved by technology. We need no longer learn the intricate details when the smartphone programmers have taken care of so much. But film-makers are now freer to focus on their craft, and it is easier than ever to become a film-maker. Historically, technology has made us individually dumber and individually smarter – and collectively smarter. Technology has made us able to do more while understanding less about what we are doing, and has increased our dependence on others.

These are not recent trends, but part of the history of technology since the first humans began to farm. In recent decades, three major changes have accelerated the process, starting with the increasing pace of humans specializing in particular skills. In addition, we outsource more skills to technological tools, like a movie-making app on a smartphone, that relieve us of the challenge of learning large amounts of technical knowledge. And many more people have access to technology than in the past, allowing them to use these tools much more readily.

Specialization enables us to become very good at some activities, but that investment in learning – for example, how to be an ER nurse or computer coder – comes at the expense of other skills like how to grow your own food or build your own shelter.

 

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