Don’t think I don’t know what’s in your hand right now. No, not the newspaper, your other hand. Yes, the BlackBerry. Put it down for just a second. No, you can’t check your email right now. If anyone is still around before spring break, I like to take the time to talk about something other than my usual praise of technology. Our reliance on technology, while wonderful for productivity and convenience also includes the risk of glossing over details of what were once much more rigorous tasks.
When you’re off on your vacations to exotic (or perhaps not so exotic) places to rest and recover from midterms, you might get in touch with friends who are spread out for break or perhaps old friends from high school in other colleges. Sometimes, it’s worth the extra effort to give your friends a call or write a letter instead of instant messaging or text messaging.
Studies on electronic conversations show that the subtleties of intonations, body language and volume are often lost and people are more prone to making false conclusions about those they speak with. People adopt more flexible personalities. They have lower inhibitions and are less polite. Without having to face the person you talk to, it is much easier to be the person you choose to be instead of being yourself.
It’s saddening to see people cling to their computers instead of actually interact. When people complain about lack of wireless service in the middle of the Diag or in the hallways of a dorm, it makes me wonder how much reliance there is on being connected. How badly you do you need to work on your laptop outside or in a hallway? Are we so desperate to stay plugged in that we cannot stand a single open space not permeated by electronic signals?
There are repercussions in the workplace, too. If you’ve had an office job, you’ve likely watched people sitting ten feet from each other exchange phone calls and e-mails. There is something to be said for face-to-face contact instead of sending an impersonal message that is lost in a deluge of e-mails.
There is more to this than just losing some of the finer points of social interaction. As the old adage goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” Often, the false confidence we place in technology dooms us to failure because we let a piece of technology “think” for us. The recent economic downturn is one example.
As pundits, politicians and economists perform an autopsy on the current economic collapse, there has been a growing sense that computer models assessing the risk of investments were partly to blame. With a rise in computer power, investment firms hired programmers, mathematicians and physicists to create software intended to “beat the market” and predict general trends to make smarter investments for higher returns.
Of course, like many technologies, confidence in the models led to an overreliance on the new tools investors had, and many used faulty assumptions or incomplete data to try and predict the market. The result was the eventual collapse of complex chains of investment based on improperly used financial models. Physicist Emanuel Derman, hired by Goldman Sachs to create some of these models, explained that they were a “tool of enthusiasm” and encouraged more risky investments rather than directly causing the crisis.
As an engineering student, it’s much easier to see these kinds of failures in classes. It’s not uncommon for students who can use computer-aided design systems or analytical programs to forget the fundamentals of the calculations behind them. If you do all of your homework with the help of a computer, a midterm with just a calculator at your disposal may seem a more daunting task than it should.
Connectivity, ease of computation and collection of data have made people quick to extol the wonders of science. That being said, it’s worth taking the time to not become a slave to the technology we hold so dear. Even taking notes by hand can be more conducive to understanding and learning than diligently transcribing a professor’s lecture. So please, do me a favor — hell, humor me and say it’s to save battery power — put down the electronics and live a little more.
Ben Caleca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.