Are We Too Dependent on Computers to Function Without Them?
When we think of computers in today’s age, we most likely think about our personal laptops. However, computers are much more than just laptops. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “computer” as “an electronic machine that can store and work with large amounts of information”. By this definition, we find elements of what is a computer in medical devices, cell phones, cash registers, and even our school calculators. We interact with computers every time we pump gas at a station, weigh a package at the post office, and clock in and out at work. Computers help us find the cheapest airline tickets. They give us directions while we drive. They transfer, hold, and release dollars from our bank accounts. They also contain our most personal information through our medical files, tagged with a nine-digit social security number.
In so many ways, today’s world is intertwined and infiltrated with obscene amounts of technology and computer capacity. The way our world functions in this exact moment points to a complete dependency on computers for data storage and collection. Even on a personal level, there is evidence pointing to an unfortunate dependency on computers to complete simple tasks. This evidence is as clear as someone staring at me, baffled, across the counter as I offer $5.06 to purchase a $4.06 latte. While I use my own computer (brain) to make even change, my cashier only comprehends the digits on the cash register that does all of the thinking for her. I’ve encountered so much resistance in asking for change, but, if the cashier does as directed, that resistance usually follows with an epiphany of “wow, that actually worked!”, as if I didn’t already figure that out in my own head.
Are all human beings doomed without computers to get us by? No, perhaps not, but H.G. Wells was on to something when he wrote The War of the Worlds in 1898. So were the Luddites who opposed the Industrial Revolution as early as 1779. Even before the invention of a “computer”, humans were opposing the predicted effects technology would have on the individual and the world as a whole. Not only do these technologies replace humans in many senses, an argument held dear by labor unions, but they also foster several levels of disconnection between humanity and the world around us. In my change-making example, this disconnect shines through as an inability to use logic in a simple, everyday interaction. However, this disconnect is even louder in the way it affects our health, our children, and the protection of our natural resources.
One of my favorite novels regarding the effects of technology on the future of humanity is the 2005 book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. In this book, Louv coins the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the phenomenon of how technology displaces an interaction with nature that is pertinent to human health and development. The author argues, using research to back up his claims, that healthy childhood development requires a certain degree of interaction with the outdoors. He sees this interaction as also necessary for the physical and emotional health of adults. Without a connection to our surroundings, he argues, humans might experience a lower self-worth, a loss of belonging, and even a lack of appreciation for the world we live in. He especially denounces the attitude that nature is dangerous and that children must be protected from it. One famous example he gives is the community laws in some villages that prohibit the building of tree houses as a way to protect children from harming themselves or from obstructing the view of neighbors with unsightly wooden boards.
As a result of these kinds of attitudes, children in his book have been quoted saying the most unfortunate things. The one that sticks with me the most is a child who is asked where his favorite place to play is. His answer? “Inside, because that’s where all the outlets are.” With all of the memories I have of tree houses, playing in creeks, climbing trees, swimming in rivers, hunting, fishing, gathering, and sleeping outside, I can’t even imagine a childhood that depended on electricity. I recognize how much my connection with nature has healed me in times of need and grounded me when my life seems to spiral out of control. Most importantly, it reminds me every day that I cannot exist without what we here on the Navajo Nation refer to as Mother Earth and Father Sky. The term “k’e” refers to our connection to these two entities, to our own people, and to our kinship lines. K’e defines our place in the world. The concept of “hozho” then describes our role in it, once we have identified our place. This role demands a degree of balance and harmony. Hozho reminds us that we can’t take without giving, that all good days will have bad days but that balance is what keeps the world in motion.
When we are incapable of looking at the world through lenses other than social status, tech-savviness, and personal gain, we demonstrate that complete detachment from the very world that brought us into being. As an engineer, I of course admire our ability to manipulate energy to create LED lights, radio waves, and technologies like computers that make my work more streamlined and professional-looking. I can hardly imagine how the first engineers calculated derivatives and drew complicated bridge designs. However, my lack of imagination also alarms me. If we become so dependent on the technologies that facilitate our career tasks, what will we do in the event that all those technologies fail us? What if terrorism stops targeting human lives and starts targeting the technologies on which we depend to keep human life in motion? We already use technology (nuclear weapons) to invoke fear; where will we limit the way we abuse one another with technology?
We are already so reliant on computers to calculate enormous equations and values for us, to store information we cannot possibly process with our own minds, and draw conclusions for complex interactions we cannot keep straight without technology – so our dependence for human advancement, as we now define it, seems quite clear. Maybe our definition of what constitutes as “human advancement” is part of the problem. We have a tendency to foster such values as self-promotion, personal gain, and success in an economy that is defined strictly by humanity. With these kinds of blinders on, we lose perspective on the diversity of values amongst human cultures let alone the reliance we all share with the same environmental economy: the health of our air, our water, and our soil. Our obsession with technology, in other words, distorts our abilities to perceive the world and prioritize our natural resources. It causes us to view our interaction with nature as a business transaction rather than a dependency on resources we are bound to protect. But will we ever learn this lesson? On a small scale, surely many individuals understand this need. Yet it’s our collective reliance on corporations and the power that they have in our governmental systems that might bring an ultimate downfall to our beliefs and our efforts.
So, are we too dependent on computers to function without them? No human with humanlike values will die without computers. The problems will arise when those humanlike values – the understanding that we need nature, that we must protect nature, and that we are no better than nature – disappear. If those values disappear, we will have lost complete touch with the very things that keep us alive. Without this touch, there is no guarantee that we can, as a whole, recover. When that happens, then yes – perhaps we will have become so dependent on computers that it is the only hope we have left to save ourselves. But, unfortunately, if we come to that point…it will surely already be too late.