The world spins faster with technology. Everything is instantaneous, we become more efficient, and it seems like an all-round good thing. But there are some things we inevitably lose when machines do the work for us. I was in Yogyakarta lately and observed that people and things moved at a much slower pace there. But while this was so, the people were actually more intelligent about certain things than those of us whizzing by in more technologically-dependent nations.
For one, the taxi drivers and rickshaw pullers never have to look at a map or GPS despite having to navigate a sprawling maze of streets and alleyways. I love GPS. I think it’s got to be one of the most brilliant innovations of the century. But it also takes away our need and ability to navigate despite thousands of years worth of our ancestors traversing jungles, plains and oceans. Will there come a day we become completely unable to function without a working digital map? I have a lot of respect and admiration for people who have these maps stored in their brains because they’ve had to pull them up and use them on a daily basis. Some taxi drivers in Singapore always have their GPS on and while that puts me at ease, it also changes drastically the skill set needed to do the job well.
Another form of intelligence I think we’re losing rapidly is the ability to communicate with each other face-to-face — both in reading the other’s expressions and emotional state, as well as conveying our own emotions and intentions. We’re brilliant at speed-messaging and communication with our fingertips. But we’ve stopped communicating with our eyes. Language has also changed. I’m guilty of this as well, but taking short cuts or using abbreviations in any language kills its poetry. Do we sacrifice meaning for brevity? A big challenge for the newer generations would be to walk that grammatical tightrope.
Cultivating our food
Something else we’re losing due to specialisation of industries is the ability to grow and cultivate our own food. It’s become completely unnecessary today. But just walking through the padi fields and watching farmers organise, till the soil and irrigate their crops makes me realise just how much knowledge and hard work it takes to get a bumper harvest. My mom has green fingers and is great with plants. And I do think while some of it has to do with having a good technical understanding of needs like fertiliser, water, etc. , most of it is just comes from feeling connected to the land and to nature. Living in a concrete jungle takes that natural instinct and affinity away from us. Food comes of out metal cans, not rich land and the work of our hands. I believe that re-establishing that connection is intrinsic to our well-being on Earth.
Making things with our bare hands
When you can print cutlery, ornaments and even furniture with a 3D printer, we may never need to use our hands again. The creativity and innovation needed to craft something useful our of raw materials like a block of wood, a piece of rock or cloth becomes something of a lost art that only countries without a strong manufacturing sector can master. There are so many beautiful works of art and craftsmanship that come out of working with our hands. Hand-painted batik cloths, glass blowing, jewellery made with shells, wood carvings and sculptures, porcelain religious artefacts. The list goes on. While these goods are common in their countries of origin, people in first world nations seem less interested in these ‘backward’ industries. Why do things slowly and individually by hand when a machine in a factory can spit them out 20 times faster? The value of the good then lies in the individual attention that goes into each piece. When we buy an artefact, do we value it purely for how perfect and consistent it looks, or are we willing to pay a premium in appreciation of the artist’s craft, time and talent?
These are but some of the things we’re losing rapidly despite them being integral to life for most of our human history. I’m still unsure what this would mean for us. We welcome technology with open arms, but it’s also important to be constantly aware of the skills we’re losing and to constantly question if they are things we’re willing to see diminish and eventually disappear.
Machines can do these faster and better for us. But do we want them to?