Listen to this story
“Once you hit the first intersection in town, make a right onto Main Street. Go past the fire station and over the railroad tracks. Make your second right after the tracks. If you see a large metal building with a truck parked in overgrown grass, turn around; you’ve gone too far…”
These are part of the directions to the house I grew up in. For decades, these directions, in one form or another, would be dictated to people planning to visit for the first time. Once I could drive, I would reference equivalent narratives, hastily scribbled down on paper, as I made my way to somewhere new.
This was a deeply inefficient process. It required an upfront conversation to get the directions, followed by significant effort and consternation to decipher them en route. If you were lucky enough to have a “navigator” in the passenger seat next to you, that opened up a whole separate level of coordination. “Wait, was that the big tree with the ‘Y’ in it? Wasn’t that our turn? You were supposed to be watching for the ‘Y’ tree!”
But while inefficient, this process represented something profoundly valuable: awareness and connection.
In order to rattle off a narrative like that, tethered to a landline phone in your kitchen, you had to maintain a detailed map of the area in your head. You and your visitor had to have a shared awareness and contextual understanding of major landmarks and geography, allowing you to shortcut details: “Can you get yourself to Interstate 70? Yes? Great, get to I-70 and head west…”
If you regularly use navigation, think about your own mental map of your town or city. How far out can you go before your map starts to fade?
To follow the directions, you had to remain acutely aware of your surroundings throughout the journey. Getting lost and turned around was a common occurrence. But every wrong turn and missed landmark represented new learning and discovery, a chance to expand your own internal map and build your resilience as you were able to troubleshoot and get back on track.
This process, of course, rarely happens today. Now all we have to do is text our address to someone and Google Maps does the rest. It’s an exponential boost in efficiency, but a significant erosion of capability and connection. We don’t need to be aware of our surroundings at all anymore. We can just wait for the voice from our phone to tell us where to turn. If we happen to make a wrong turn, it is immediately corrected. We don’t have to figure anything out.
Some believe that over time this kind of reliance will degrade our broader cognitive function. It’s unclear if that is true, but what we can say is that it does diminish our skills and our level of self-sufficiency.
If you regularly use navigation, think about your own mental map of your town or city. How far out can you go before your map starts to fade? Can you name the streets and key landmarks directly surrounding your house? Those a few blocks away? How easily could you give someone narrative directions to your home from miles away? How different is your internal map today than it was five or 10 years ago?
For those who have offloaded navigation to their phones, these questions can start to prove challenging. As our awareness fades, GPS-enabled navigation becomes something we “can’t live without.”
The reliance economy
Today, much of our existence centers on the attention economy, where our focus and time are mined, and the resulting data is manipulated and sold as a commodity in service of driving advertising revenue and feeding algorithms. We’re becoming painfully aware of the downsides of this arrangement as services architect themselves to put us in a perpetual “can’t look away” state. But as detrimental as the attention economy is, it’s just a temporary stop on our way to a very different destination.
“Can’t look away” was never the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal has always been “can’t live without,” and that is a very different animal.
As technology advances, we have begun offloading more and more of our cognitive functions and skills to our devices.
In 2016, researchers conducted a study to test the effects of the internet on human memory. Participants were divided into two groups and asked a series of challenging trivia questions. One group was allowed to use the internet to answer the questions, while the other group could only use their memory. Afterward, both groups were asked a second set of trivia questions. This time, the questions were easy and both groups were allowed to answer them using any method they chose. What the researchers found was that the group who had already used the internet for hard answers was significantly more likely to use it to find easy answers as well. In fact, 30% of the internet group did not even try to answer any simple questions from memory.
As Benjamin Storm, PhD, lead author of the study, put it:
“Memory is changing. Our research shows that as we use the internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it. Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don’t bother. As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives.”
As technology advances, we have begun offloading more and more of our cognitive functions and skills to our devices. This isn’t altogether surprising — cognitive offloading is a strategy we use in other areas of life as well.
In close relationships, like a marriage, ownership of life tasks is frequently split between the couple, with one person taking responsibility for each area, like paying bills, cooking, or managing car maintenance. This allows us to gain efficiency, but it can also have significant detrimental effects. If a spouse dies suddenly or a couple gets divorced, our cognitive support is stripped away and we are left to relearn skills or find outside help with things for which we may have had no responsibility over the years. Yet despite the risks, in this case, reliance has an evolutionary benefit in helping us maintain long-term relationships by forging tighter bonds through shared dependence in a (hopefully) mutually beneficial exchange.
This isn’t the case with our reliance on digital devices. With technology, we aren’t becoming dependent on another person — we’re becoming dependent on corporations. Even if our relationship with a company is mutually beneficial in the short term, the chances of a long-term mutually beneficial relationship are almost nonexistent. We don’t build companies to create long-term relationships. We build companies to drive profits, and that leaves us vulnerable.
Despite the way we position it, technology is no longer a tool to solve problems; it has been twisted into a tool to grow profits. Capitalism isn’t geared to solve problems. If a company truly solved a problem, it would put itself out of business. Instead, the system is geared to keep consumers perpetually in need. For every solution we create, we have to manufacture a new problem. One way we do this is through planned obsolescence: intentionally designing things to have a short lifespan, which drives frequent upgrade cycles. This is the reason Apple releases a new iPhone every year and stops supporting older versions. This is also the reason that the average appliance now lasts about eight years, and why the fashion industry pushes seasonal trends.
But planned obsolescence isn’t the most powerful problem a company can generate. The most powerful problem a company can create is the “I can’t live without it” problem. If a product replaces a human skill, we become reliant on it, and making us reliant is the ultimate long-term growth strategy. Monopolization isn’t just about pushing out the competition. It’s about monopolizing human capability.
But while this process drives business and economic growth, it degrades our resilience at an individual and societal level. This creates a compounding fragility at the base of our societal structures and we become increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic events. This is a self-perpetuating downward spiral where, as our resiliency continues to diminish, it takes less and less for an event to be catastrophic. Just like a marriage, when our partner goes away or the situation changes, we’re left holding the bag. We’re becoming progressively less capable of handling those changes.
Despite the way we position it, technology is no longer a tool to solve problems; it has been twisted into a tool to grow profits.
Our true reliance on technology is still emerging. We’ve only just reached generations who have never seen a world without it. But navigation and Googling for trivia answers are only the tip of the iceberg. The expanding capabilities of artificial intelligence (A.I.) are going to dramatically accelerate the number of tasks we fully offload to devices. Self-driving cars. A.I. personal assistants. Scheduling. Communication. Writing. Purchasing. Courtship. Designing. Coding. Solving mathematical problems. Art. Music. Problem-solving. It’s all up for grabs.
As Marvel’s Dr. Strange put it, “We’re in the endgame now.”
Some take comfort in the fact that A.I. is still relatively “dumb,” with the sense that it is not a concern until it becomes smarter than us. But what they’re missing is that this isn’t a race to create a superintelligence — this is a race to replace human skills and build the next “can’t live without it” monopoly. In that race, A.I. doesn’t need to become better than us. We just need to become dumber than it. As smart devices subsume more of our capabilities, we will gain efficiency, but we will lock ourselves into a dependent relationship.
This isn’t the first time we’ve headed down this path. We’ve taken a lot of potentially empowering products and contorted them into tools for reliance.
Take the car for example. The car is a massive enhancement to our ability to travel and is incredibly empowering, but in our drive for monopolization, we’ve stripped that empowerment away by developing a system that locks us into car-based travel. We’ve planned and built our entire environment around vehicles, to the point that it is nearly impossible to live without access to motorized transportation. We now have an entire segment of mobility companies trying to untangle those decisions. Additionally, over time we’ve made cars more and more complex to fix and maintain, creating a reliance on an intricate system of mechanics and dealers in order to use them. Finally, we’ve created an unnecessary upgrade cycle through a combination of marketing and mediocre craftsmanship. We’ve taken what was an empowering technology and imprisoned ourselves in it.
We don’t have to continue down this road. Technology is not something that happens to us — it’s something we choose to create. We have the ability to make different choices in the way we design and build our products and the way we incentivize our companies. Despite what we’ve been told, we can build for empowerment instead of reliance, and still create profitable businesses. The next decade will see a dramatic expansion of our digital capabilities. It’s time for us to start thinking critically about the choices we make and the things we decide to build.