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Soulful Sundays: Technology

Arthur C. Clarke's 3 Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

My grandmother turned 90 this year. She was born in 1932 and grew up during the Great Depression. When she was 13 years old the first nuclear bombs were deployed in WWII. She came of age during the post-war technological boom of the 1950s and 60s--personal automobiles, household appliances, and broadcast color television. She's seen the development of space travel, computers and so much more. She got her first iPhone at the age of 80 and arguably uses it better than most Generation Z'ers. And, most importantly, she knows when to put it down.

Everywhere we look we see technology. We have been relying on it since the dawn of time. Even in nature, we see technology. The finch extracts larvae with a thorn. The ant builds cathedrals from dirt. The tree constructs wood from water, sunlight, and air. The use of external inputs to craft our environment is indistinguishable from being alive. But as the user is shaping the technology, so too is the technology shaping the user.

I listened to a podcast recently in which a guest categorized all technology into two types: instruments and devices. The first category includes things like musical instruments, medical instruments, scientific instruments, and the like--things that require some degree of skill, attention, and effort to operate. They amplify the user's contributions but don't provide them. Devices on the other hand are low-skill implements. Instead of enhancing the user's creative capacity they actually blunt it. They are designed to entertain rather than teach.

I found this distinction a unique way of thinking about technology, and I ask myself this question prior to engaging with it: "Am I using this _________ to be generative or merely to distract?" In other words, am I pursuing learning, or do I just want entertainment? Each of us has a different set point of balance for these two poles, as productivity and leisure vary greatly from person to person. An obsession with always needing to create things can be just as unhealthy as an obsession with always needing to be entertained, so finding that balance is essential.

The next evolution would be to derive entertainment from learning and learning from entertainment. This level of mastery is something we can all strive for and it will, by definition, be difficult. Yes, a state of flow in which we are both creating and enjoying ourselves feels effortless, but it rests on the shoulders of a lot of hard work and consistent practice. Focused attention over time is the only pathway to mastery. Technology that claims to be a shortcut to mastery should be used at our own peril.

As we enter the age of ChatGPT, algorithm-based content, and endless scrolling, keeping ourselves away from the gears of technology is becoming more and more difficult. But what if our default position could be one of more direct simplicity? What would the world look like if we made different choices--reading a book instead of surfing the web, hanging out with a friend instead of hopping on social media, or going for a hike instead of looking at the rectangle in our pockets? Let us not forget that no technology (as of yet) surpasses the one between our own ears, but it will only stay that way if we choose to feed it.

(This post was brought to you free of AI [unless you count splelcheck :P])

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