When I am at my bank, filling out deposit slips in the management of my vast financial empire, I often think that by adding up my check totals by hand rather than using the calculator stationed by the deposit slips, that I am preserving the ways of the Ancients. This feeling was reinforced when, not long ago, I was in the office of a recent hire who asked me to take a look at some problems that his sister-in-law was having difficulty with in an undergraduate business class. One question pertained to discounting cash flows (the mathematical expression of the notion that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar to be received next year). Now I’m no math wiz, but the mathematical formula for discounting cash flows is not complicated and pretty intuitive, but when I started writing it down (thinking that it would throw some light on the point of the question) my colleague (an accounting major of fairly recent vintage) looked at me as if I were writing Chinese characters. He handed me a trusty HP12C calculator and said, “Why don’t you just use this?” I have it on good authority from an elementary school principal that children are still taught how to do math without a calculator. But sometimes I wonder.
Though we may still be teaching math, I recently heard on the radio that some school districts are discontinuing the teaching of cursive writing because there is “no demand” for it in “the real world.” I prefer a real world, however, in which personal correspondence is not so impersonal that the only contact the writer makes with the paper is to feed it in to a printer and sign (or print) a name at the bottom. Granted, most people would no doubt prefer that I type out or e-mail my letters to them, since my scrawl is barely legible. But it is always nice to receive something written in a neat cursive hand (usually written by a female, for such skill is one of the many differences between the sexes). Will this be a pleasure unknown in the future? Will people need to take their laptops and their Blackberry’s everywhere, or be forced to print their thoughts (if they write at all)?
A couple years ago I experienced one of the greatest tragedies that can befall modern man: Hard Drive Failure. Or at least that’s what I initially thought. It turned out to be a bad memory chip, and my life was back in order in a few days. Though I have managed to complicate my life to the extent that I can no longer do my own taxes, I know enough about tax law to be dangerous and volunteer to prepare the taxes of my siblings every year. And here I was, less than a month before April 15 with my computer, loaded with my tax software, inoperable. I was in a panic before I realized that only a few years before, I was doing these tax returns by hand, no sweat (or not much). So why the panic?
That’s the problem with modern techno-society. We have allowed ourselves to become dependent on technology to the extent that it has reduced our confidence and, indeed, our ability, to perform basic tasks without it. Just as the Welfare State has nefariously bred dependency and atrophied pride, self-reliance, and the work ethic in many, the marvels of modern technology are a lure to mental and physical sloth.
I am one of the “bridge” group that grew up in a world without personal computers and managed to get through four years of an undergraduate education using a device known as a typewriter. But from graduate school on, I’ve ridden the wave of technology, moving from 5-1/4″ floppies to CDs. My career, to a large degree, has depended on my mastering a number of computer programs. But I have also been slow to adopt the techno-lifestyle. I’ve never planned my life on a Palm Pilot, or used a TiVo, or touched an iPod. I refused the offer of my company to provide me with a “Blackberry” — a horrible device that makes you reachable by e-mail almost everywhere you are — and it was only a few years ago, bowing to the needs of business travel, that I got a cell phone. But I only turn it on when I’m out of pager range or when I want to call somebody, and I still haven’t set up its voice mailbox.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not writing this in a cabin in Montana with a copy of Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance beside me. I love e-mail, scanners, $59 color ink-jet printers, and all that stuff for what they can allow me to do that I couldn’t do before. What I rue about all these neat inventions is the basic things they are causing people to stop doing — like simple arithmetic by hand or in their head, or writing letters by hand. What will we do if the power goes out — or if a hostile power uses an electro-magnetic bomb that military planners are now fretting about that could render all our computerized gadgets useless? How will we entertain ourselves, how will we correspond with each other, how will we balance our checkbooks?
Americans play video golf, video football, video car-jacking, and even video solitaire. No wonder more Americans are obese than ever before. But it’s more than just our bodies that are getting flabby. Every so often we should all put down the calculator and turn off the computer and do things with pen and paper and with our minds, if only to prove to ourselves that we still can do the things that our primordial ancestors who lived prior to 1985 did every day.