Our world is becoming a smarter place. We have smart phones, smart cards and smart bombs, where once we had only stupid phones, idiot cards and really dopey bombs. This unprecedented surge in smartness, however, applies only to inanimate objects and has avoided humans altogether. In fact, as our high-tech devices have grown smarter, we’ve become much more dim-witted. These two trends, I hasten to add, are not unrelated.
Charles Darwin saw things differently. His theory of natural selection held that humans would continue to get smarter and smarter so that by the year 2525 (if man were still alive), we would have gigantic brains contained within enormous heads, and possibly great big throbbing and glowing foreheads too. (Don’t try to find the part about the foreheads in Origin of Species. I’m just paraphrasing here.)
Unfortunately, at some point during the last century, Darwin’s theory jumped the rails. It stopped applying to us and started applying only to our electronic devices, especially those sold at The Sharper Image. Man’s brainpower began to devolve the moment he picked up the first TV remote. This devolution picked up speed with the advent of picture-in-picture technology, which enabled man to watch an NFL game and the Pam Anderson VIP series simultaneously. TiVo and the VCR are also implicated here, making it possible for family members to watch whatever they want whenever they want, thus eliminating the need for human contact and the rancorous screaming matches that are essential to the development of a rich vocabulary.
The most innocent and seemingly helpful devices are, in fact, causing our brains to shrivel up like a thumb that’s been in the bathtub too long. A car’s global positioning system does, as advertised, help position us on the globe. It also strips us of our ability to read maps, plan itineraries and, ultimately, find our way from the bedroom to the bathroom.
Our sense of direction now thoroughly degraded, we find tasks that used to be simple, like grocery shopping, well-nigh impossible without the assistance of yet another ubiquitous electronic device, the cell phone. Walk into a suburban supermarket and you’ll see a number of lost-looking husbands, their own navigational systems shot to hell by their reliance on GPS technology. They’re the ones on the phone grunting “uh-huh” as their wives guide them to the precise location of the 1 percent milk. This is progress? We’ve turned picking up a quart of milk into a mission as fraught with complexity and danger as Apollo 13.
Does all of this mean, as many sci-fi films would seem to warn us, that machines are destined to rule the world, after turning us into their sex slaves? (I may have seen different sci-fi films than you.) I don’t think so. We may be stupider than our inventions, but we’re better built, and for a simple reason: We didn’t build ourselves. The average American has a life expectancy of 75 years, while the average VCR breaks after six weeks.
We may be a bunch of chowderheads, but time is on our side.