The decline and fall of intelligent thought

There’s just no stopping progress.

Take a look around you. Signs of technological advancement are everywhere. Portable stereo systems, calculators, cellular phones, personal computers and other such gadgets abound. These were produced to make life more convenient by maximizing efficiency, reducing lost time, or simply for entertainment. Most of these creations are useful, financially accessible and easy to operate. They make life “easier,” yet they don’t take the fun, or the challenge, out of living.

But somewhere out there, technological geniuses crammed into labs from MIT to Silicon Valley are working frantically to remove the last barrier between Homo sapiens, the intelligent, productive human beings we are, and Homo ineptus, the helpless, mental weaklings we can become.

Case in point: the new Internet Fridge produced by LG (slogan: “LG Electronics helps make daily living effortless”). This glorified descendant of the reliable icebox allows one to e-mail, watch TV, make a video phone call and play MP3s. In essence, this fridge will transform a boring kitchen into a giant technological rave scene, but the only “ecstasy” here is the plastic pleasure derived from knowing that you can watch Survivor while chopping onions. And you won’t even know which one is making you cry.

And there’s more in the works from the MIT Media Lab. Talking oven mitts, for example. Imagine picking up a roast from the oven and hearing “Hot and ready to eat!” Better yet, if the roast is burning, “Fire!” There’s also a super pH meter in the works, which can detect if something’s gone bad or if it’s too spicy. Turn on the “virtual tongue” and watch in amazement as it tastes your food and tells you what exactly is in your “special sauce” based on its DNA. The potential for shenanigans with these kinds of items is incredible indeed (would a “virtual tongue” know dog shit from horse shit?), but it’s doubtful that they would really be much help. People are usually astute enough to realize when something’s on fire, or if the dessert is edible. “Honey, is this soufflĂ© tasty enough as it is, or does it need some Tabasco?” “Gosh, dear, I don’t know. Let’s see what the virtual tongue has to say!”

But wait… how about a kitchen that cleans itself? A box of Tide that tells you how to clean ketchup stains? A laser cutter that precision-toasts marshmallows? A computer that makes your grocery purchases for you online? Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on the design of items just like these. Items of little practical use. Items that will strip us of our ability to make decisions, to do things the way we want to. Items that will make us completely dependent on pre-programmed microchips that don’t allow for variability. Items that perpetuate the race to keep up with the Joneses.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, but no thanks–I think I can figure out how to clean my kitchen, and I don’t mind doing it. I know that detergent and vinegar gets ketchup out, and that the best way to cook marshmallows is to take a bag out to the campground, set up a tent and roast them on sticks over an open fire. I know how to buy my own groceries. No computer, by the same token, will ever know the richness of human contact experienced every time you look someone in the eye, smile and accept your change. But the advent of appliances that replace the tasks of everyday life, the tasks that allow time for reflection and that make having fun so much more fun… well, that’s the kind of change I’m not willing to accept.

Most people know all this. They know it because of that fantastic piece of equipment no lab geek could ever hope to emulate in a machine. It’s what made us such a successful species, and it is exactly what will atrophy if we succumb to the allure of “advanced” technology. It’s the human mind, and nothing will ever replace it. No, siree. There’s just no stopping progress.

And sometimes, that’s too damn bad.

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