The Blog

Beware the Thing in Your Pocket

Mental arithmetic has gone the way of the typewriter - no one uses it any more. The reason is simple: electronic calculators. The person who works behind the counter has no need of mental arithmetic because the till does it for them. They don't need to add up and so they can't do it any more.

Your smart phone is making you stupid. Consider this: when was the last time you paid for more than one thing at a time and the cashier added the sum in their heads? Even in bars and pubs, when the server will have pulled them all day, they are unable to add the price of two pints together before punching it into the till. They can't even remember how much one costs.

In grocery stores, fruit mongers used to add the contents of your entire shop in their heads, while dexterously whizzing the goods round in small paper bags to twist the corners. That was when the high street was full of shops that bore the name of the family that owned them. These days, if a store sports someone's name on the front, it is because the private equity company that bought it decided to retain it to cash in on its customers' goodwill, or a focus group approved it as a name that breeds confidence. What they do not have confidence in is their employees' ability to add two numbers in their heads.

Mental arithmetic has gone the way of the typewriter - no one uses it any more. The reason is simple: electronic calculators. The person who works behind the counter has no need of mental arithmetic because the till does it for them. They don't need to add up and so they can't do it any more. And as for subtracting the bill from the amount offered in cash to come to the amount of change that needs to be returned to the customer, well, forget it. If they can't add up in their heads, then subtraction is certainly beyond them.

This is worrying, because smartphones do considerably more than our sums for us and our experience tells us that if we don't need to do something, we will lose the ability to do it pretty quickly. For instance, almost nobody alive today could start a fire without matches. It is the most basic skill of all, the one that separated us from the other animals, our first invention, the reason we are here and no-one can do it any more. This is because we don't have to.

We also don't have to read maps these days. If you own a car, you probably have a map in it but when was the last time you consulted it? It was probably to locate the store that you bought your sat-nav from. The ability to read a map, locate yourself in the terrain, plot a route to another town, navigate through the streets to find the ideal route - all that has gone. The widespread study of cartography and the skill involved in decoding maps was doomed to extinction the moment the first electronic navigation aid connected to the military satellites that lead us to where we are going.

We don't need to remember where we've been either, because the sat-nav will do that too. We have no need to recognise landmarks and special routes, short cuts and time saving rat runs because it is much easier to place our faith in an app on our smartphones, which frees us up to do other things, like avoiding cyclists and not driving on the pavement. Fairly soon, we won't be able to find our own homes because our smartphone sat-nav will do that for us.

The art of photography is also nearing extinction. Not the act of taking snaps - that is more popular than ever, but the ability to take the artistic, well framed, perfectly exposed photograph is on its way out. The amateur is no longer restricted by the limitations and expense of film rolls, where every shot counted because of the number on each roll and the expense of developing them. Now a smartphone owner can snap away at any old thing and clean the results up later. They can re-frame and edit and add effects to bring out the best of a poor source image. Where is the skill in that? With a smart phone, you always get a second chance at the perfect shot.

Do you have a good memory? Well, you won't be needing that any more. The phone in your pocket remembers everything, so you don't have to. Appointments, anniversaries, memos, to-do lists are all in its tiny electronic mind. Without the need to remember anything, we will soon lose the ability of recall. We will shortly be surprised at the event of our own birthdays.

Not only will we have no need of remembering what we have coming up, we will also not need to write things down. Smart phones come with voice recorders and memo takers, they have speech recognition systems to obviate the need for typing, which will follow writing as another skill that is on its way out. Why go to the trouble of writing something out manually when a machine can interpret your spoken word and do it for you? If the technology for that is not quite perfect, it won't be long 'till it is. Then you can decide to either get rid of the hundred pens you have all over the place, or keep them as a memento of a bygone age.

In the supermarket, our phones can tell us what is in season and when we get home, it will show us how to cook what we have bought. You need never learn how to cook because your phone has an app for that. In fact it has an app for everything that we may need to do that traditionally was learned as a skill.

Our smart phones are getting more sophisticated at an astonishing rate. Even now, at this early stage in their development, they can take the place of so much proficiency and learning. We will let those abilities die out because we are so lazy that we refuse to do anything that can be done for us. If we now can not find our way home, or cook for ourselves, or do sums in or heads, or recall anything we need to, then what abilities will the next generation of phones rob us of?

In a decade we might have lost the ability to think at all. By that time, our phone will probably have become our own personal assistant, something that we won't have to consult, as we do now, but that will be woven seamlessly into our lives. We will probably be wearing it, not carrying it. Most likely it will be in the form of glasses, through which we will see the world, or rather, what it thinks we want to see.

At that point, we will be completely reliant on them and the human race will have ceded its dominance of the world to a thing that chirrups chart hits whenever someone calls you. We could call it the Age of the Machines. I am pretty sure I recall seeing something similar in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

I seem to have forgotten - how did that turn out for us humans? I'll look it up on my smartphone.