Thursday, June 13, 2013

It's a brave new world, I think

I was sitting around with some friends the other day when, as it inevitably happens, one of us had a question no one else could answer. We were doing our best to come up with a solution that made some kind of sense when one person in the group stopped the rest of us in our tracks.
"Wait," she said. "I'll look it up."
She grabbed her smartphone and as quickly as you can say "Alexander Graham Bell," she was able to provide the rest of us with the gross national product of Togo or whatever it was we were trying to figure out.
Just like that.
Now, I realize that the concept of phones, tablets, pads, pods and other itty-bitty handheld devices with more brainpower than the NASA computers that sent men to the moon and back is nothing new. In fact, the rocket scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently announced that they had, indeed, used smartphones as the computing power in three new nanosatellites, a kind of small-sized spacecraft that are often launched to work together in a so-called "satellite swarm," which is a bit of terminology, by the way, that sends absolute shivers down my spine.
Another recent newsflash said that more than half of the adults in the United States now own a smartphone.
Not me, though.
As a result of my own special combination of cheapness and stubbornness, I continue to wield a vintage flipphone that actually receives an occasional admiring glance from teenagers and other folks who are supposedly in the know, because they assume it is some kind of hip, retro uber-phone that is merely posing as something you might find in the bottom of a Cracker Jacks box. Ergo, while others are determining important stuff like the population of Sri Lanka in 1947 or the names of each and every one of the Seven Dwarves, I am engaged in more mundane, yet equally important tasks, like calling home to see if we're going to fix dinner or not.
Believe it or not, though, I was one of the first kids on the block to own a cell phone. Thinking that it might save me from being stranded and eaten by raccoons if my car broke down on my daily commute to and from Peoria, I purchased a bulky, bag-like affair that only worked occasionally along the rural routes that connect my hometown with the big city by the Illinois River.
But I liked it. And here's the thing.
I admit It made me feel safer. And cooler. And more in touch. And smarter, even.
And before I begin to make you think I'm some kind of rugged individualist who only learns those things that can be found by pouring through dusty tomes in the catacombs of the local library, let me hasten to admit that I am often more than happy to let Google do the research via my handy laptop Mac.  I guess what worries me a little is, that as computing devises grow smaller and smaller and more incredibly interactive, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when everybody will have the ability to know, well, everything.
I worry that people will no longer be curious. That they will no longer ask questions or hazard wild guesses or even just admit they don't every little thing there is to know.  Sometimes, it almost seems to me like the ability to get instantaneous information on nearly every subject is almost like thinking without a brain!
These are the things that keep me up at night, along with wondering if I remembered to feed the cat and pay the power bill, or if anyone has eaten the last of the chocolate chip ice cream.
But here's the good news.
I'm pretty sure I'm wrong.
While there are going to be some folks who mistake sheer data for knowledge, there will always be those who know that information is only a part of the process; those who understand that what we really know is a unique combination of facts, opinions, fears, dreams, desires and all the other things that drive the wonderful process of thinking.  Like the great old UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once said,
"It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts."
But hey, I know I'll have a  new phone or some kind of fancy smart-gadget someday. My old friend is bound to die of old age eventually, even if I don't manage to drop it in a toilet or forget it on a bus. And who knows, if I wait long enough, I might even be able to get a microchip imbedded into the back of my head and hit the game show circuit in this brave new world.
Or maybe, just maybe, I'll keep trying to using a devise that's been around even longer than the first computer.
It's called a brain.

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