I’m a map geek. As a child in the seventies, I always loved long trips with my parents. The day before, I would plan the best route and draw it on a map. During the trip, I would use landmarks – crossroads, rivers, town limits, and later, mile markers – to determine our current location on the map with as much accuracy as I could. In those days before the Internet, I devoured all the maps I could find, from all the sources available at the time (the local library, mostly). Later in college, one of the more interesting courses I took was freshman Western History; not for the rote memorization of key dates and events, not because the instructor was a tough old girl who used to come out in the hall to smoke with us kids (Smoking? Inside buildings? Around impressionable children? Unbelievable! Unthinkable!), but for a fascinating book that was required for the course: Hammond’s Historical World Atlas.
Hammond’s atlas illustrates the spread of political provinces over time. It clearly shows the rise of Man, from sparse settlements in Mesopotamia to the global coverage Man enjoys today. There is now no corner of the Earth in which we can hide from politicians and authorities, no frontier to which we can turn when we are just completely fed up with our current state of affairs. How we got from the early settlement of a small area of the Fertile Crescent to global hegemony is largely the story of some pretty brave, fed-up people setting out with no maps, with no guide as to where they might end up and what hazards they might endure along the way, with nothing but their wits to guide them.
This brings me to GPS, which is causing our individual wits to decay.
To a map geek, the Global Positioning System is an awesome thing. My first encounter with GPS was also my first trip to that bastion of nanny-statism, California. On a 1999 business trip to Monterey, my partner and I flew into San Francisco and picked up our Hertz rental car. Much to our delight (since he is as much of a technothrope as I), the car was part of a test program wherein it was equipped with one of the first commercial GPS devices. The thing was about the size of the typical Bible (religious publishers must think physical mass implies truth) and bolted securely on a giant bracket sticking out of the dash. I can’t remember for certain, but it may have had a monochrome, not color, LCD display. But it was amazing! We simply entered the address of our Monterey hotel, and the thing proceeded to speak aloud, telling us how far it was and how long it would take, and the first turn to make on our journey into the unknown. (Well, not quite unknown, as my partner had lived in San Jose for several years.) I made him drive, so I could explore all the technical wonderment of the device.
I don’t remember a lot of the technical details, but I do remember that there was only enough memory on the device to hold maps for Northern California – and not even all that, just the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. I remember the device being surprisingly good at what it did, only getting tripped up a little once we got onto the smaller streets in Monterey. On my return, I regaled the hill folk with my story of this wondrous sight. A few weeks later one of my other technothrope friends with too much disposable income showed up at my house with his laptop and an expensive little device on a cord called a “GPS unit.” We proceeded to take off on one of our infamous road trips, this time to Metropolis, Illinois – storied home of the Superman Museum. Again I made him drive, so I could play with the new gadget. As before, we watched in amazement as the software rendered our current position on a map that updated as we drove. Incredible!
Thanks to the amazing economies of scale in modern capitalism, I now have much cheaper GPS units in both vehicles. The first was easy to justify – we had just moved to Orlando, and while like all Real Men I have no problem reading a map the wife doesn’t and gets very nervous driving somewhere she’s never been. So when her birthday rolled around after the move, I found myself as usual lacking in imagination when it comes to a gift, and engaged in the typical husband behavior of buying his wife presents he himself wants. I purchased a Garmin unit.
Given the messy nature of the real world, the thing works great, to which many of you can attest. The technology is awesome, and clearly can be shown to be a benefit of the space program (well, mainly the Soviet space program, as U.S. scientists noticed the Doppler shift in Sputnik’s signal). But as with the application of every new technology, there’s a problem here…
My kids’ generation is growing up with these devices commonplace. When they need to go somewhere they’ve never been before, they just ask the machine how to get there. The problem arises at the point when the machine doesn’t work. They are not going to have the basic knowledge of how to read a map; in fact, they won’t even have a map, because the machine provides the map. But if the machine doesn’t work, they’re lost. They don’t have the basic skills, the knowledge needed, to get by in the non-machine world.
When I use one of these devices, the part of my brain that pays attention to navigation – to recording the route, the waypoints and the landmarks – shuts itself off. Once I arrive, I have no idea how I got there, no idea how to get back, and I cannot repeat the journey without the aid of the mechanical man. (This gets even worse if I talk on a cell phone on the journey. And another thing: now that your cell phone stores numbers and you can dial by a person’s name, who bothers to memorize phone numbers anymore?)
Perhaps we are to be consoled by the idea that not everyone needs these skills anymore. Pre-GPS, if you wanted to journey very far from your home, you needed map-reading skills. Now, you are only going to need those skills when the machine breaks, which is not a frequent occurrence, or if you set out for one of those regions where the GPS doesn’t work – Antarctica, perhaps, or some other remote location of the globe. Again, how frequently will this need arise? To make an efficient chimney requires a lot of technological savvy. The engineer must design the chimney to a certain width, depth, height ratio to maximize smoke removal while minimizing heat loss. How many of you know how to do that? Should we bemoan the loss of this skill? In the 19th century, the pioneers in their conestoga wagons would need at least one person per traveling group who had this skill, and I suspect back then most Real Men knew at least a rule of thumb of flue construction. Today, there are probably fewer than 100 people in the United States that need this ability: architects designing houses with fireplaces that are largely ornamental (if they burn wood at all, most use fake logs burning propane or natural gas).
I think the loss of cartographic skill is a chink in the armor of human survivability. Its loss is not really significant in and of itself, but if you add to it all the other skills we have lost about how to survive and thrive in the world, because our society delegates these issues to others, then increasingly over the years we are losing our basic ability to survive. When I was a kid, many fathers, who were born in the 1930’s and 1940’s, either built their own homes, or at least built significant additions to their existing homes. They did all the work themselves, from the architecture to framing to brickwork to plumbing and electrical. They fixed their own cars, grew their own food, etc. Their fathers built their own houses and barns out of lumber they sawed from trees they themselves felled. Back then, those men did it of necessity; today, the Home Depot thrives due to weekend warriors doing these things for their leisure. We are preserving some of the skills required for self-reliance, but many are lost forever. I personally trade time refining those skills for time sitting in the A/C watching TV and playing on my computer. I build all my own computers, and thereby understand computers from the raw electrons flowing into them to the spectacular 3D graphics rendered by modern games. But in the not-so-distant future, that too will be an unneeded, lost skill relegated to a handful of computer factory designers, or to the machines themselves.
The central question of the Technothrope’s essays is always, “Are we better off today than in previous decades?” We are delegating the hard work of living to factory farms, high-volume housing builders, auto dealers, and lawn care services. We are increasingly handing over our lives to machines that do things for us: to the GPS unit to get us there; to Outlook Calendar to remind us of birthdays; to TurboTax to calculate what we owe; to cell phone contact lists to remember phone numbers for us; to the Internet Movie DataBase to remember who starred in what movie; to Wikipedia to provide reference material at our fingertips. But the success of today’s Knowledge Worker (more appropriately, in my opinion, Information Worker), is their ability to multitask; to manage multiple threads of execution simultaneously, which requires, as does all human activity, the best associative memory one can develop. In the past, we developed it as teachers required us to memorize things. Society required us to memorize things. Parents required us to memorize things. Today, classrooms do not focus on rote memorization at all, and engineers are giving us machines to remember for us. (In fact, computers are pretty good at associative memory; many experts including the Technothrope believe that Ontology Engineering and Content-addressable Memory and will be the next Big Thing in computing.
Eventually, as in the movie Wall-E, we can envision a day when machines will manage us as workers – if we even have to work at all. What will be the point of being human at that time? Asimov predicted this in the sixties, and blue collar workers sweated the thought of being replaced by machines all through the seventies. We are rapidly becoming obsolete as manufacturing workers and farmers. We will ultimately become obsolete as information workers. Lawyers and accountants (both already unneeded if not downright harmful to society), artists and makers of entertainment, taxi drivers, bankers, managers, car salesmen, realtors, astronauts and soldiers – all will be replaced ultimately with mechanization, as we are replacing cartographers today. So what can we say for long term career prospects for homo sapiens?
Basic science – I think it will be a long time before a machine can make the mental leaps in basic science and mathematics required for breakthroughs.
Repairmen – Diagnosing problems and fixing things requires much of the same cognitive ability required to make breakthroughs in basic science. Often, the root cause is not clear and can only be divined through intuition. Furthermore, the repairman must have knowledge of the entire system and be able to physically manipulate the many disparate objects that comprise it. Although intuition is a function of associative memory, I think it will be a long time before this is mature enough in machines and combined with enough dexterity to manipulate the disparate objects in a system in order to fix it.
Doctors and Dentists – See Repairmen.
Politicians – Unfortunately, we will still need (or think we need) people to make decisions for us. After all, we’ve sacrificed all our own individual abilities to survive and thrive on our own, and are losing the ability to make decisions for ourselves. We are rapidly approaching the point in our big corporations where no decision can be made unless it is done so by groupthink, and this trend is starting to appear in childrearing and other social communities as well.
Ultimately of course, machines will be good enough that they can do all these things. Maybe by then they will resemble us (biological robots). Maybe by that time we will have replaced enough of our organic systems that we will resemble them (bionics). Maybe we will merge into a new race, combining the best of both Man and Machine. Maybe at that time, we will turn to the only interesting thing that’s left to do: bravely setting out with no maps, with no guide as to where we might end up and what hazards we might endure along the way, with nothing but our wits to guide us, out into the galaxy and beyond; driven as we always are by curiosity and by the desire to move to a new place because we are just completely fed up with our current state of affairs.
Daniel Britton, The Technothrope, is a video game developer, former aerospace engineer, militant Southerner, and part-time philosopher-for-hire. He is eager for the day when wars will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain, by robots. He looks forward to building and maintaining those robots.