Essay Contest: Computer Dependency

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.

Humanity: The Only Species That Think It’s at the Top, But It Isn’t

When I checked the news today, I was surprised to see something other than the Olympics or Mitt Romney/Obama or some pointless article about somebody saying something about nothing I care about.  However, the first article I came across was “600 million without power in India after 3 power grids fail”.  http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012-07-31/india-power-outage/56600520/1

This topic particularly intrigued me when I first saw it.  My two reasons: Immediately, I thought, ‘I wonder how many people really care?  Seriously, the Olympics are going on.  Anyone in London or a sports bar isn’t concerned about the power in a Third World country.’  My second reason for taking quick notice to the article was that I just sat through a webinar by the Department of Energy last Wednesday discussing grid failure and how it affects tribal reservations.  When I sat back for a moment, I realized this really delves deeper than all of those topics: This is a matter of how vulnerable we are, how ignorant and stupid we can be, and how our dependency on power is going to be the cause of our fate.  (Talk of an energy crisis, anyone?)

First, let’s look at this situation in India: The most populated country in the world.  600 million people, “more than the entire population of the European Union plus Turkey”, 20 of India’s 28 states.  Had this actually taken place in Europe, it would have been utter chaos.  With all of the Universities and high-tech experiments, the superior hospitals, tourism, and the Olympics broadcasting, it would have been insanity and we would’ve had a lot more than one article in the newsfeed about it.  But it’s India.  I mean, how many of the residents even use that much electricity?  Obviously not as much as the US.  We top the charts in energy consumption.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t use it.  In fact, some people’s lives depend on it.  Who’s to say no Indian is on a dialysis machine – or was?  The article mentions an electric crematory that shut down in the middle of processing bodies.  More importantly to the living population, miners were trapped underground and had to be rescued by other means.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the Olympics are a great thing and it’s nice to see so many countries come together, but why can’t we come together like this to fix the world’s problems?

Second, let’s check out this grid failure situation: Like I said, I just sat through a webinar regarding failures.  Failures are more common in remote locations, like Indian reservations in America.  This has to do with a lot of factors, like distance to remote locations, difficulty to access and repair problems, money and affording monitoring of the system, and even inconsistent use of the power.  The Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde in India blamed their grid problems of the last few days on states “taking more than their allotted share”.  That is just poor management.  But grid failure is not uncommon, and it is particularly prevalent in these remote places (of which India could be considered a part).  So many precautions are installed in the United States to help monitor these electrical inputs and outputs, as required per code, and yet problems still happen.  India’s codes are likely less strict and poorly monitored, but if a Third World country losing part of its power temporarily can cause this much disturbance in the transportation and other aspects of the population, just imagine how much damage it could do to Europe or North America…

…which is what leads me to the third point: The weakness of humanity.  We do not dominate the top of the food chain and we never did.  The way I see it, we were physically weak and awkward beings.  If we did evolve from monkeys, think about: Monkeys hide in trees and, while some might be violent and attack, our direct ancestors would have been prey before predators in the jungle.  Our niche in the evolutionary journey was to outsmart the predators.  By doing so, we eliminated our less intelligent population to the point that our brains and thought-processes were becoming superior.  We then figured out how to use tools and other appendages otherwise not naturally a part of our bodies to take down other animals, to hunt and gather.  Also as a part of our weakness and physical ineptitude, we formed groups to create strength in numbers.  These groups lead to a system, sometimes a hierarchy, and, usually, as time does tell, these groupings lead to disputes and splits and, ultimately war.

That is how we have become our own worst enemy.  We can worry about meteors or aliens or what’s at the bottom of the ocean all we want, but while we’ve got our backs turned to each other, we’re just going to be marching into our own graves together.  We are digging our one-way ticket out of here.  We form these alliances which only mean we’ve left other alliances unformed and tensions building elsewhere.  We’ve strived to be better than one another for the ultimate success in technology and firearms, to makes ourselves threatening but to claim we are trying to be of no threat.  We race to own all of the resources, then feel threatened when those resources aren’t in our own hands.  We burn up useless energy trying to let everyone have a piece of everything, from exports to travel to useless luxuries, then we use more energy trying to solve our problem of, well, not having enough energy.

What happened to a few hundred years ago?  Not that things were perfect then, but we didn’t have such an electrical dependency.  Is it that our population is becoming so rapidly large?  We are trying to meet demands and generate such enormous surpluses to cover our backs in case a crisis happens?  Are we working at such a fast pace that we can’t do without energy?  And we wonder why people are stressed and fat and miserable.  Why money is so important when money is time, and time can’t be spared.  Society continues to degrade itself into a world where no one remembers what the real family values or priorities for happiness are.  We have no respect for each other because we have no respect for ourselves, for our planet, or for what is genuinely important in our lives.

So if you take nothing else away from this entry, at least consider this: Where do your values lie?  And what would become of you if we had an energy crisis that we couldn’t overcome?

And then remember that, although you are reading this on an electrical machine, I did too write this with power that those 600 million Indians are currently doing without.