Man is born intelligent and stays so until it learns enough to be a dumb
Years back, in Pune, we had an affectionate Tamil neighbour who we called ‘Didi’. My wife and I spent a good deal of time in her house and in the process got to know a bit of Tamil culture and food (though we still don’t have any clue how rice could be swallowed with a drier and funnier ‘gun powder’ and that too almost every alternate day!).
One day, her slightly plump school-going daughter who had teeth as beautifully deformed as Mousumi Chatterjee’s, who loved our fragile son possibly as much as her own little brother and who illogically called me ‘Bhaiyya’ (all our ages lay on the uncomfortable gray zone of generational transition where you are too young for one and too old for another), came to our house for help with her school assignment. I don’t remember the topic now, but it was something about making a PPT on conservation of water resources. Their Internet wasn’t working and I had to sit with her, almost like a co-devotee, while she posed questions to the almighty, Baba Google Swamy.
It was okay till that. But I soon realized that she kept on searching even though we had downloaded enough data for the assignment. When asked, she said, “Bhaiyya, you don’t understand. We weren’t there yet.” What dedication, I thought (this was the first time I had ventured into the uncharted waters of the ‘tenth’ page of Google search results, discovering to my surprise that they even look similar to the first page!). Finally, she found a PPT (not a page, not a pdf or word document, but a PPT!) with a file name matching very closely to the search term. Without going through its contents, she jumped with joy. “Got it,” she said, “now I can just take this and submit.”
A couple of years back, a student in the class asked, “Sir, why study when everything is available on Google?” I was lucky that my brain worked better that day than most other days. I said, “Why don’t you search on Google how to make another search engine as good as Google?” He fell silent, not because he was rendered speechless, but probably because he didn’t understand the monstrous profoundness of my words. So I had to take a simpler route. I said, “Beta, Google knows nothing. It only shows what people like you and me write or shoot and upload on the Internet.” He seemed to survive that line. So I continued with some comfortable exaggeration (it’s risky, but when you are prof, you often do so anyway), “When you know nothing, you can’t even search. When you know something, you search. But when you know well, you are searched for.”
The class nodded in a temporary appreciation. But I knew this lesson would soon be forgotten and most assignments would be promptly copied from the Internet, sometimes run through free softwares in an attempt to fool plagiarism-checkers. And the assignment would degenerate to a race between computers, rather than humans (some of my colleagues think that the explosive combination of Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V is probably the worst invention by mankind since the atom bomb, and few have, ironically, even started insisting on taking hand-written assignments).
I often fear this increasingly scary reality. When I ask students if they consider themselves ‘tech savvy’, most hands go up. But consider this: the smarter the technology, the stronger is our responsibility to dumb down. Remember how our grandparents (or even parents) never understood a computer; it had many moving parts — a keyboard, a mouse, multiple cords, a boot-up screen, file and folder structure, hidden settings scattered here and there, and too many file types and extensions. Compare that to an Android mobile today, devoid of all such complications (of course it has a far complex software working behind the scenes) where everything is right there when you need it. All you have to do is going to the Play store and hit ‘install’ to bathe in technological bliss. Whether it’s the Language Translator, Image editor, Augmented Reality (AR) games or the friendly neighborhood Uber.
I wonder if that is being any tech-savvy!
So it’s not entirely a funny that on a recent trip to the Silicon Valley, a friend, when out cycling, got stranded on the road for more than an hour because his cellphone, along with the Google map inside, died on him.
I think our inherent desire to find comfort (which we have started to confuse with ‘smartness’) will increasingly be exploited in the name of improving our ‘quality of life’. But I worry what would left of life once computers take over most cognitive functions. For example, what’s the fun in cars that drive itself, or at worst, park itself? But one day, most people will own one. Today, if you are a photographer, an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered device fitted to DSLR camera can choose the perfect settings for a great photo. Why then break your head understanding the nuances of Aperture, ISO or Shutter Speed? A compass on the Google map tells you the direction instead of the poor sun! An AI Android app identifies plants and flowers better than a horticulturist. We have already stopped using most of the charms of language (and completely stopped appreciating spellings) in the supreme convenience of short-hands, icons and falling verbal communications. We have stopped calculating and remembering too. While birthday alerts come from calendar entries that we make today, we won’t even need such entries tomorrow. Google would know. Today we still tag a friend. Tomorrow we won’t have to. Facebook will simply know.
Slowly, but surely, we will have a slew of ‘smart’ products made by only a few extremely brilliant people, to which a majority will outsource much of their brain functions. While the peddlers will make truckloads of money, the rest of us will revel in the fact that we are getting ‘smarter’!
Alas! There was a time when technology solved real problems. The wheel, the telephone, the ship, the weather forecast or the medical devices. Today Technology, especially the Information Technology kind, is quickly becoming an overkill, exploited by those whose primary intention is keep the demand high for their products and services. In the past, the industrial economies colonized the poorer countries in the quest for newer markets. Today what we see is some sort of information colonialism where to create more demand, one needs to ‘colonize’ the minds. It’s happening both openly and surreptitiously.
A Google pins you down by Chrome browser, Chromecast, Google Home, Android, Google Apps and Drives, App Cloud, Tez Payments and much more. An Amazon through its website, AmazonPay, Prime video, Prime music, Alexa, the AWS and a few more. Where will you hide? How will you fight for your independence?
No, I don’t think by being over-lured, over-stupefied, over-analyzed and over-accessed, we are exactly living a simpler life. If you see, funnily, many of us probably end up working late nights to be able to afford the exactly same useless pieces of technology that others amongst us working late nights create.
I wish we stopped doing this to each other and lived a truly simpler life.
(By the way, right now as I finish writing this, I can’t help but notice that seconds after I searched for ‘Google Tez’ on my laptop, a ‘Tez’ ad appears for the first time on my mobile!)