There’s a new series of TV ads for the iPhone running lately, in which ordinary folks stand up in front of a piece of black seamless paper and tell stories about how much they love their you-know-whats, sometimes supported with anecdotes. One features an airline pilot, who talks about how one of his flights had been condemned to a three-hour delay because of weather. “Three hours for a flight that would take one hour and 40 minutes,” he said, knowingly. Oh, man. We’ve all been there.
So, bored, he turned on the iPhone and checked weather.com, where he discovered the weather was actually clearing at the flight’s destination. He called the tower, told them the good news, and whaddaya know, they were cleared for takeoff p.d.q. Go buy an iPhone!
I didn’t greet this news with optimism, as it evidently informs us that a U.S. airport has fewer weather-prognostication tools than the Weather Channel, proprietors of weather.com. I think if most of us realized, on a daily basis, how much all the rest of us are flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak, we’d never leave the house. And yet the world soldiers on.
But the ad was on my mind when I read a non-irritating David Brooks column today, “The Outsourced Brain.” Brooks is at his best on this sort of neutral ground, and he makes an interesting observation — that the beauty of this new information age isn’t how it adds to our store of knowledge, but subtracts from it, by freeing us of having to remember a bunch of stupid crap. After noting his increasing reliance on his car’s GPS system, he writes:
It was unnerving at first, but then a relief. Since the dawn of humanity, people have had to worry about how to get from here to there. Precious brainpower has been used storing directions, and memorizing turns. I myself have been trapped at dinner parties at which conversation was devoted exclusively to the topic of commuter routes.
My G.P.S. goddess liberated me from this drudgery. She enabled me to externalize geographic information from my own brain to a satellite brain, and you know how it felt? It felt like nirvana.
Through that experience I discovered the Sacred Order of the External Mind. I realized I could outsource those mental tasks I didn’t want to perform. Life is a math problem, and I had a calculator.
Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.
I suspect he’s correct. I’ve already noticed the dulling of some of my once-ninja skills in some of these areas. I never used to forget a phone number; I could probably still tell you the numbers of my best friends in junior high school. Nowadays I know my own, and that’s about it, but it’s OK, because they’re all in my phone’s memory, and I don’t need to. I worry more about the loss of geographic knowledge, as geography is more important than any of us think, and not just in the is-Maple-north-or-south-of-Twelve-Mile sense, either. People evolved to be connected to the earth, their own particular patch of it, and being able to delegate it to a GPS unit doesn’t strike me as a huge improvement. Plus, jeez people, do we really need another electronic device to get distracted by?
I keep a compass on my kitchen table’s lazy susan, to remind me which way is north. Every house I’ve lived in until now was oriented square — north out the back door, south out the front, etc. Everything in GP is at an angle. Drives. Me. Nuts.
Bloggage? I got no bloggage for you today, people. Let’s play a game — you leave the bloggage for me to be amused by. And have a great weekend.