abstracting away thought

A computer’s job is to do work for us, not think for us. There’s a blurry boundary between the two tasks, but it’s an important one that must be given some thought.

When computers were initially designed, they were built as ‘calculation machines’. Before that, computers and calculators used to be titles that were given to people working in your organization. If you needed someone to tally up figures and crunch numbers all day, you hired a calculator. When the first mechanical calculator was invented, it resembled more of a giant steam powered washing machine than the modern day microprocessor variant we think of today.

The inventors of the original calculators could have no idea their creation would eventually lead to the iPhone. What started as a simple machine for performing basic calculations is now a device that carries your entire digital life. As time goes on, more of our personal thought is being captured in these devices. We’re delegating more than ever to our personal computers.

As we’ve asked more of our machines, the tasks they perform have gotten more complicated. In the Palm Pilot days, you only had a digital calendar. Now you have a digital calendar that syncs with all your accounts wirelessly, anywhere. Don’t even get me started about where we’re headed with something like Apple’s Siri. Our computers used to be about doing work in isolation. Now, more than ever they’re about connecting us together. We used to just write documents on our own computer. Now we edit documents in real time, with collaborators across the world. Do you think anyone had any idea that this calculating machine would be used to help you decide where you want to eat today?.

I remember reading a study that showed the Hippocampus in London city cab drivers’ brains shrinking noticeably when using GPS for navigation. In a complicated city like London where it takes a lot of experience, thought and training to navigate its windy and chaotic roads, the cab drivers were using their brains less, and using the machine more.

We’re delegating more to the machine. As we do so, are we losing something? Are we losing the ability to think about the interesting problems of life as the machine does more? The person who programmed the machine had to think about it in precise and exact detail. But as the users of those programs, are we relegated to being simple close-minded consumers of that thought? Our culture is becoming more digital, more online, more connected, and more pushed to our machines. Are we losing a bit of our culture when we give our robotic companions more bits to chew on for us?

Now, you might throw your hands in the air in disgust and say, “But Blake, this is a good thing! If we give the more menial tasks to the computer, our brains will be free to focus on newer, more important things!”. I would agree with this statement. I would agree that as we delegate more to our computers, we’re given the opportunity to worry about more interesting problems. I wouldn’t be able to sit at my computer typing this right now if I had to spend 12 hours a day tending to my crops in the field. The innovation of machines allow me to work at a higher level of sophistication. The question I’m wrestling with here is, where does the line get drawn? Do I want a machine that sits on the dash of my car and tells me where to go? Do I want a machine that scans my floor looking for dirt automatically and cleans it up? If there was a machine that could load my dirty dishes into the dishwasher for me, would I want such a machine? Maybe the answer is yes, maybe the answer is no, but it’s a decision that must be made.

When we let the machines think for us, we lose the ability to think ourselves. We bury our thoughts in GUI interfaces and abstract metaphors. The future will have more technology, and it will have more of it that will be faster and do more for us. As the machines continue to do more thinking for us, do we consider it acceptable to be left as less robust thinkers in our world, culture, and society? Or will we use the machines to help us think about bigger problems?

about the author

Blake Smith is a Principal Software Engineer and leads the Infrastructure group at at Sprout Social.

Blake Smith

create. code. learn.