Friday, April 20, 2012

Lonely and stupid here... you rang?

Two articles from The Atlantic were recently brought to my attention that deal with something I've been thinking about a lot lately; the role of innovation and technology on our lives.

Stephen Marche wrote an insightful article on social media titled: Is Facebook making us lonely? The article delves into the contemporary psyche, especially from the American standpoint. He touches on subjects that go beyond the scope of the title such as questioning what exactly makes us happy.

Here's a hint: trying to be happy doesn't make you happy.

As far as loneliness goes, we Americans the author believes, are a lonely lot by design. We value our independence and individualism over community. In other words, we choose to be lonely. It's not surprising then that Facebook, which allows us to connect with others without having any real contact with them, was born and bred in the good ol' USA.

But is there a causal effect between the social media and loneliness? On that subject, the author reluctantly seems to suggest no; you get out of Facebook what you bring to it.

I could have told him that.

The other article addresses how new computer technologies and the quest for artificial intelligence are affecting human intelligence. It was written by Nicholas Carr who wrote a book on the subject. His point in a nutshell is that our attention spans have been greatly compromised by the cacophony of information the new media bombard us with on a steady basis. See if you can prove him wrong by getting through his lengthy article provocatively titled: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Carr's most salient point comes toward the end of the piece where he questions his own premise by noting that the inventions of writing and the printing press themselves were questioned by folks back in the day who worried about the loss of oral history and memory, the dissemination of information without appropriate instruction or background, and the spread of "sedition and debauchery." In other words, they understood that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Sound familiar? It turned out that the fears of the naysayers about the written word and printing press came true. It just so happened that the benefits from those earth shattering inventions outweighed the drawbacks.

The fact is, with every great invention created through the ages, something has been lost. Before the phonograph was invented, people entertained themselves by making their own music. Before television, people used their imagination to conjure images in their mind's eye of the characters they read about or listed to on the radio. Before the automobile, people got their exercise by walking. To escape the summer heat before air conditioning, people sat on their front stoops and talked to their neighbors. The list goes on and on...

This brings to mind the greatest invention story of all time. A very long time ago, farmers stored their grain in large earthenware pots. One day, some farmers forgot to cover the pot to protect their precious harvest from the elements. A rainstorm drenched the grain. Then the sun came out and heated the rainwater, slowly cooking the grain converting starch into sugar. After the water cooled in the evening, yeast spores suspended in the air landed in the mixture, voraciously consumed the sugars, and reproduced wildly. When the farmers discovered the uncovered pot sometime later, they assumed their harvest was ruined. That is, until one brave soul decided to try the soupy mess. It tasted peculiar, but the farmer soon discovered that drinking the concoction sure made him feel good. In fact, the more he drank, the better he felt. Soon the others tried it. You can imagine the party they had that night.

After the next morning's grogginess wore off, the farmers realized they had a good thing on their hands. The problem was, recreating it wasn't simple as they weren't around to witness the sequence of events that had to take place before their simple grain would become a magic elixir. Through experimentation by trial and error, they eventually came up with a successful batch. Many archeologists credit this as the dawn of the scientific method. Next they needed a way to remember how the heck they did it so they could repeat the process. Other than their memory, (which may have been altered by this time), there was no system to record the steps they took to create the potion.

So they had to invent one.

We know this to be true because the earliest examples of written language that archeologists have discovered are you guessed it, recipes for beer.

Now I needn't point out the obvious benefits of beer to society. As is the case with all great inventions, we lost a few things too; productivity, innocence, and countless weekends just to name a few. But the fact remains that beer's greatest contributions to society are written language, science and mathematics, (they had to keep track of all that precious brew you know).

Because of written language, we have books, and because of books we have libraries and the dissemination of knowledge. After Guttenburg's invention, knowledge was no longer the exclusive domain of a select few. Along with the rise in literacy came the fall of oligarchies, the dawn of the Enlightenment, and the rise of the arts and democracy.

Just as literature opened our minds to the ways of our world, science and mathematics gave us a greater understanding of the mechanisms of our world. The work of scientists and mathematicians opened the door for inventions that would work for the benefit, and sometimes to the detriment of society. Increasingly complicated problems required a new method to calculate mathematical equations that was quicker than the capability of the human mind. Again out of necessity, they had to invent one. They would call it the computer.

Eventually it was discovered that the computer could be used for things other than calculations, it could be used on words as well as numbers. Once that discovery was made, as with the invention of movable type some 500 years earlier, the computer forever revolutionized communication and the spread of knowledge. Soon the entire world became connected.

Then along came Google and Facebook and because of them, we all got lonely and stupid.

Just think, all that because of beer.

We beer lovers the world over realize that at some point, our preferred beverage would make us stupid and maybe a little bit lonely. Who knew it would take 5,000 years?

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