Why hi-tech modern life makes us gadget-rich yet skill-poor

Why hi-tech modern life makes us gadget-rich yet skill-poor

Paul Carey, Western Mai
Apr 21 2006

Just like children’s cartoon hero, Inspector Gadget, today’s hi-tech satnav systems, computers et al mean we have all the gear but no idea. Catherine Jones asks what other skills today’s technology is killing?

IT’S one thing to enjoy the novelty of a trend but quite another for it to wipe out an entire way of life.

Satnav systems are the latest menace in the technological wave that is rendering society ever more incapable of helping itself.

As debit card spending overtakes notes and coins for the first time, it is predicted the cheque – which demands being able to spell and write – will effectively be dead in five years. It doesn’t stop there. Systems allowing shoppers to pay using a fingerprint scanner – no need even to remember a pin number! – are currently on trial.

Along with computers, which stop people having to put pen to paper, and calculators and tills which stop people having to add up, satnav systems mean people no longer need to know how to read a map.

Sales of the in-car gadgets have soared by £255m in just two years, according to market analysts Mintel.

The gadgets guide drivers to their destinations using satellite-tracking technology with a screen showing drivers where to take the next turn – sometimes accompanied by a computerised voice.

Men, who are said to loathe asking for directions, no doubt love such things but is the rise in popularity of the satnav system the thin end of the wedge?

Like other hi-tech advances, it means society is losing all kinds of skills, not least the ability to communicate – or have a row with the other half sitting in the passenger seat.

Gone will be that rich seam of jokes about male drivers refusing to ask for help when they get lost and women reading maps upside down.

Gone will be that moment when, having been asked for directions, the pedestrian, buoyed by a polite and grateful exchange, gazes after the departing car, making up a little story about "what’s going on there then".

And gone will be that need to apply the brain to a problem – how to get from here to there – the kind of good old-fashioned teaser that is surely as much of a cerebral workout as the Sudoku puzzle, a craze much-touted by medics as a must-have for those keen to fend off dementia and Alzheimer’s.

With yet another flick of a switch, the hard task of map-reading has been taken out of our hands and soon such a notion will seem as dated as the ducks in the village green pond of a Miss Marple film. How quaint! Did people really need to stop and ask?

Think how thriller films of the slick-townie-asks-country-bumpkin-for-directions sinister plot line will miss that dramatic device of showing how quickly news travels in Wicker Man land.

And think how easily safety awareness campaigners can defend the use of a satnav – it saves you rolling down the window to a potential serial killer, especially if you are a woman in the back of beyond.

Of course, there are very good arguments for many technological advances – the road diggers that mean good men no longer need toil with a spade (they now lose the calories on a computerised treadmill instead) and the many medical breakthroughs achieved by such sophistication.

But without the use of a host of electronic gizmos, how would many of us get on? What’s the square root of 144 without a calculator? How do you use a word such as accommodation without a computer spell-check?

Of course, the apparently far-sighted will be transfixed by such developments. Take the car as a whole – once a means of getting from A to B and now a kind of concierge, able to tell you where to go, what the temperature is, when you are low on fuel and, tut-tut, put your seat belt on.

To think, we used to marvel about electric windows instead of the wind-up variety or automatic locking instead of the ordeal of turning a key in a lock. But in adding all these accomplishments to our possessions, how many "extras" are we losing ourselves?

We are becoming a nation happy to have the nanny of technology taking over our lives. The cash-point pin number instead of a spoken exchange at the bank counter, the speed camera fining us because we are incapable of staying under the limit ourselves.

In the same way we may now have the beneficial vitamin folic acid added to our bread and extra cancer-fighting lycopene in our tomatoes, we take – crave even – any helpings of technology dished our way.

In the future, satnav devices could merge with in-car entertainment systems to provide music, video, navigational help and mobile communications, according to Mintel’s Car Accessories report.

Hey, how far should we take this? Stop the need to talk to each other ever again!

No wonder soap operas, providing us with the moronic minutiae of other people’s lives, are so popular. As it is now we barely speak to anyone else, and if we do, we are becoming increasingly lost for words.

Anyone got a satnav system for expressing ourselves? A dictionary? You need to know how to spell to use one of those.

Just how far can falling prices and improving technical capabilities enhance our lives?

The sophisticated computerised telephone systems of corporations now mean you get a robotic voice instead of a real one.

With fewer jobs as technology advances, the sorcerer becomes the apprentice and HAL, the computer who takes over in 2001: A Space Odyssey is boss.

Presumably that was always the plan. As we become more robotic, the robots take over.


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