active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Idiotic for the masses

Technology makes you stupid. I’m not being insulting here — that’s the point of it. That’s the contract we’ve entered into with our tools. You do all the thinking, we say to our smartphones. Just give me a couple of buttons so simple my kid can use them.


And kids can use them. My four year old’s been swiping his way through his mother’s iPhone for months. He can take photos of himself, find Youtube videos, and much more. He can’t read competently yet, and his pictures are still woeful scribbles. Give him Lego and he’ll make a tottering stack of different colored bricks. But he can use an iPhone. And if it’s simple enough for a four year old, it’s probably simple enough for you.

Whenever anybody asks me why I don’t own a smartphone, I claim I’m a luddite. To understand why, you have to know what I mean by the term.

I love technology, but I’m not dazzled by it. I got over my electronics fixation the first time I owned a digital watch. The stopwatch function and the lap function were interesting, but just functions — and a smartphone is just more functions. Big deal. I get much more excited by some of the clockwork toys my son plays with. Those dazzle me. The iPhone leaves me cold.

When I was a kid, armed only with a couple of screwdrivers, I would take apart any bit of technology I could find, in order to see how it worked. I soon destroyed my parents’ reel-to-reel tape deck, typewriter, spin dryer, and much else. I could never get the things back together again, but I learned a lot of engineering principles, and paved the way for a career in technical writing.

Later, I began taking apart and retuning my own motorbikes and cars — with, I’m pleased to say, a little more proficiency — and found myself a job documenting the intricacies of classic Stromberg, SU and Weber carburetors. Those SU needle profiles turned me on. Whoever invented them had used truly elegant thought processes.

I was soon building my own PCs, too. I’ve never bought a computer out of the box.

This is the reason I dislike Apple, as I mentioned in my post And the horses too. I’ve owned a few. I started my career writing programs for the Mac 2. But I don’t like being in a straightjacket. I like to get the case off, refine, optimize. These days you can’t even tinker. Not only is the hardware locked in, but the operating system, too – and all in the cause of simplicity.

Our willing slavery to the dictates of the manufacturer now includes just about everything around us.

When was the last time you saw a worthwhile graphic equalizer for your hi-fi? That’s too much like control. Instead, it’s all locked in. You use a little microphone to measure the acoustics of your room, and you’re done. If you want to tinker with the sound, you merely press a button that simulates a Vienna concert hall. What more do you need?

And let’s be fair. Simplicity is wonderful. I’m glad that I merely have to hit the Start button on my Japanese washing machine, and it weighs my clothes, tells me how much powder to add, and then gets on with it. I don’t want to read the damn manual for something as trivial as a washing machine.

But having no control of my hi-fi? That hurts.

Does technology, then, make us stupid? This is one of the themes I explore in my novel Biome. There are obvious ways in which we’ve lost the skills our ancestors used to have. For example, take away our technology and few of us could catch a fish, cure a goat skin, or start and build a fire.

Similarly, why bother to spend months mastering fingerings, practicing chords, and figuring out notation, when you can create music in seconds on a computer? New smart cars are about to do much of the tricky business of driving for us, such as parallel parking. In business, the day of the trained accountant is long past. Now you can balance the books on Excel without even knowing how to calculate a percentage.

And there’s writing, too. Japan, where I live, no longer has a literacy standard, as it used to be measured. I know university-educated executives and scientists who cannot write more than the simplest kanji by hand. Why should they, when their computer or smartphone lets them choose the character from a phonetic list?

I spend so little time actually writing by hand myself that my own handwriting has degenerated in the past decade, and I sometimes have to pause to remember spelling.

It’s an accumulating process. As the instant gratification of the internet has pervaded our lives, we’re no longer able to digest long arguments and follow complex reasoning. Face-to-face social interaction gets ever clumsier and more primitive. Soon we’ll have Star Trek-style tricorders that mean medical staff don’t need even basic nursing skills. We’re becoming the idiot adjuncts to our technology.

Biome, which is set in the near future, takes the argument a step further. What happens when we create machine intelligence? (I pointedly use this term rather than ‘artificial intelligence,’ since there’s nothing artificial about intelligence.) In the novel, I suggest that the creation of MI will cause humans to suffer “an evolutionary shudder into imbecility.”

In other words, the rise of sentient machines is something we’re happy to inflict on ourselves, so we don’t have to bother thinking anymore. We’ll go willingly into that subservience all the SF writers have warned us about.

If this seems horrible to you (and why? It ought to seem utopian), be thankful that there’s one piece of consumer kit that still revels in its complexity: the SLR camera.

Mine is a Nikon D5100, and it’s bottom of the scale. Nikon calls it an “entry level” model for “beginner” or “apprentice” photographers – those who’ve migrated up from compacts and have zero photography skills but want to improve themselves. In his guide to the D5100, David Busch calls it “point-and-shoot for the thinking photographer.” He’s right.

But take a look at the buttons and dials and switches and levers that pepper the thing – the photo above shows just a few of them. Sure, there’s a preset that gives me the equivalent of that Vienna concert hall effect. But if I want, I can take control of every single part of the picture-taking process.

Like I said, I love technology. My D5100 is probably the most sophisticated piece of handheld equipment I own. But most of all, I love being in control of it. To me, that’s the true definition of a luddite – and why I’m proud to call myself one.


Robert Maas’s thriller Biome is available to buy at Amazon.


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