Wednesday, March 27, 2024

AI will make us stupid – no, silly memes will make us stupid

A frequent question I now get when speaking, is actually a meme. Surely AI will make us stupid… often followed by the example of Google Maps making us lose our ability to read maps, so without it we’d stumble abut like zombies bumping into things unable to find anywhere. I’m sure there were people saying the same, about us losing our shit, when we no longer navigated using the stars. 

I went through the whole, use a paper atlas/map, then print off route from computer and have it on your lap, trough to having a specialist satnav and on to GPS maps on my smartphone. Every single step was an improvement. And whether it is Apple or Google, I don’t need or want to pour over a difficult to unfold map and decide on some sub-optimal route, where if I get lost I genuinely have no idea where I am, don’t know how far I have to go, how long it will take and whether there’s a petrol station or toilet within the next 10 minutes of driving.

Do we miss horse riding skills, before we had cars, the stagecoach before trains, and taking two weeks to get abroad by boat before planes. Making papyrus from reeds was no fun, neither was slaughtering cows and skinning them for vellum for writing.

I am happy I didn’t have to learn Morse code for communications, and now don’t have to write letters every time I want to communicate with someone afar, as that was how I did have to communicate with the only person I knew abroad, my penpal, one letter a month or using great thick phone directories. Neither do I miss having to go to a payphone to arrange a night out while my mate was in one at the other end at exactly that time. 

My grandmother used to wash clothes by hand and used a mangle, we now have washing machines and dryers. I spent untold hours washing and drying dishes in a sink of filthy water – give me a dishwasher any day – it’s not a skill I regret losing. Neither do I regret doing what I had to do for years in the rain and darkness, fetch a bucket of coal for the fire in our house, twice a night, or start a fire every morning like a caveman, from a firelighter, some small sticks and a newspaper.

I for one am happy that we don’t have to read Latin to study and research, use library cards to find books, pouring over microfiche on a hand-cranked machine, or walk endlessly up and down stacks of journals to find one research article. Nor having to buy the entire Encyclopedia at huge cost before search. It hasn’t affected by ability to learn or do research one bit – only made things easier, faster and better. 

Winding clocks up was a pain, developing my holiday snaps in a darkroom or waiting for weeks to get them developed by post was wearisome. Every holiday and flight booked through a high street travel agent was a pain. I like being able to watch what I want when I like, not being limited to three TV channels, which had to be changed by hand on the TV. I like not having to go to Blockbuster to rent videotapes, then return them.

And no, I don’t miss hand setting type for printing or threading typewriter ribbons, having to get every letter and word right, no reordering or revisions possible, putting sheets of carbon paper behind paper to make a single copy, even those damn expensive photocopiers, physically looking up a physical dictionary for the meaning of a word, or thesaurus for alternatives. No, I don’t want to do my company accounts in a ledger book, or add by hand very long lists of numbers - I like calculators and spreadsheets. I don’t want to learn binary arithmetic before learning to code, use floppy discs or use punchcards (all of which I did). Dial up internet was a pain.

Augmentation and automation mean we can progress and do things faster and better. This freed women from the drudgery of domestic chores and freed working-class people from the indignity of servitude. We love invoking the idea that tech will make us dumber. It’s a lazy hit. All tech has its doomsayers, claiming it will make people stupider – writing, printing, radio, film, TV, photocopiers, computers, the internet, search, smartphones… and now a technology that promises to make us massively more productive - AI.

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