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Walking With a Limp

I just watched a car commercial during a TV show; not sure who sponsored the ad (number one sign of a bad commercial by the way) but the song was “Turn Around, Look at Me” by the Vogues, a great song and sad to hear it in a car commercial (although I understand why they chose it). The song, however, is not the point of this post. Rather it concerns the product itself.

Whatever car it was that they were selling features a backup camera. I know, nothing new there, many car makers now have a rear view camera. But this one was a special back up camera as it warns the driver if there is something in the rear zone. In this case it was a human inattentively walking head down texting on his phone. The driver did not see him, but happily, the car did and then signaled an alert to the driver. I am unclear on whether the driver applied the brakes or if the car did it automatically, but regardless of who or how, the brakes were applied and the teenager strolled on, obliviously. So “yay” for technology – saved the day!

I’ll need to look for this ad again to study the driver’s actions during all of this, but my recollection is that the driver glances in the rear-view mirror while beginning to back out of the driveway. I do not recall a head turn to look in the side mirrors and certainly no full head pivot to look over either shoulder prior to backing out. To me this portrayed an extremely lax and careless driver – reckless even. Who backs up a car without looking all around you before doing so? Especially in a driveway crossing a sidewalk and into a street? The walking teenager was in full and immediate view throughout the whole incident and in fact, a modest head turn to the left by the driver would have revealed his presence. But “yay” for technology.


Sorry, but not in the eyes of this old Wolff. This is what we are doing to ourselves and especially to our young – we are compensating for poor or inadequate skills with technology. I know, I know – it’s just a commercial. Got it. But we are all still taught (I assume, I hope) in Driver’s Ed to look over both shoulders, check both side mirrors, and the rear mirror before initiating any movement of the automobile. Evaluating and understanding the envelope around your car before (and while) operating it is Driving 101. But rather than fix the problem, which may be distracted drivers or poor driver training, we insert technology to compensate.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a huge fan of insertion of technology – it was my job for over ten years and I installed thousands of sensors to monitor dozens of different plant systems: steam and boilers, yard air and compressors, electrical power voltage and phase balance, and countless other examples. But it was not done to compensate for poorly trained or inattentive maintenance personnel. It was meant to provide 24/7 continuous monitoring that we could never have done with people. The technology was a tool to allow them to cover more area, take breaks, perform repairs, and so forth. But in the case of this car commercial, it is because the driver never even made the effort to look.

And this is not an isolated application of technology meant to compensate for humans. There are sensors that monitor the areas along the sides of your car so that if you begin to move into another lane already occupied by another vehicle, it alerts you. Nice. Really – that is a nice feature. But if you are truly driving as you were taught and as you are expected to as a licensed driver, you should always know where all the cars are around yours. And before moving that two ton mass of metal traveling at 70MPH into another lane, you are expected to look for – and to see – the car next to you; before being the operative word. But as we all know, people don’t often look, they seem to assume that a turn signal is sufficient. And if there is someone there, they seem to assume that their turn signal should alert the other driver to get out of the way. Looking? Doesn’t seem to be a popular method these days. So let’s design a sensor to compensate for these drivers. And there are a number of similar technological insertions to cars out there right now, including one that I think can parallel park the car itself without driver intervention.

Why are these things bad if they can help make driving safer? Well, of course they are not; not as long as the root cause of the problem is being addressed: driver carelessness and poor driving. But that is not the case. I think they are actually dumbing down the Driver’s Ed curriculum in some states. Bad move. Back in the 70’s a gasoline company, Shell I think, did a great job promulgating safe driving tips and general rules of the road. I recall little booklets as well as TV commercials, all providing valuable lessons on safe and proper driving methods. With today’s web access essentially anytime and anyplace you would have to think that getting out safe driving information would be next to effortless, especially apps on a phone.

Speaking of cars and phones, I am astonished that they have not implemented a system that “blacks out” phone signal while the car is moving. We certainly have the technology to do so, apparently just not the balls to do so. Shut down texts and emails and calls whenever the car is running and moving, simple. My state is hand’s free and has been so for a while. Yet I am hard pressed to drive for more than five minutes and not see someone holding a phone while driving. And yes, I know I just contradicted the whole thrust of my message in this post with this paragraph. But it really drives to the crux of the issue; it is easier to compensate for bad behavior with technology than it is to correct the problem.

Let’s take the leap from cars to phones, although actually they are far more than phones as we all know. They are web browsers, email devices, cameras, clock, calendars, calculators, and a hundred more things – mine can be used as a level and can supposedly measure as well. And that is an impressive use of technology. But at what cost? I don’t want to sound like the typical boomer here, but from what I have witnessed over the last ten years, society’s ability to perform basic tasks have seriously eroded. People can’t spell their way out of a paper bag anymore, they rely on spell check to do that for them. I fell prey to that myself, misspelling a word while typing and when the squiggly red line appears under the word I would merely right-click to select the correct spelling. And that simple action began to undermine my spelling ability to the point where I noticed my decline. I now will go back and retype a misspelled word as many times as it takes in order to spell it correctly myself.

Math. I am not sure how many people are left on this earth that can make change for a $17.97 sale when handed a $20 bill, but the number will be decidedly in the minority. Many people can no longer perform simple math without a phone or a calculator (or the cash register to do it for them). I have been in stores when the power went out and even though I had cash, they refused to complete the sale. When pressed, the response I got was that the store had no confidence that the cashiers could do the math and make change.

And let’s not even go into texting, an activity which promotes abbreviations and shortcuts in both spelling and grammar. Now we are texting with emoticons and emoji’s – basically using pictures and symbols for words. We are going back to hieroglyphics!! Funny, but sad.

I need to pause here for a moment to emphatically state that I DO know there are some extremely bright and intelligent young people out there, all of whom can do math in their head, write properly spelled words – neatly – in cursive, and can write a formal letter, on paper. And they probably look over their shoulders when they back out of driveways! I am not singling out young people here and I am grouping any generation into a pigeon holed condemnation. Not at all; this spans all generations and ages. I am writing about how technology has made it easy for anybody using it to become lazy, lax, or generally lose our edge. Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials, and any and all other generations; technology has become a crutch for all who use it. The thing with a crutch is that it is meant to be temporary, only used when needed. But we rely on our technological crutches constantly and that can and will leave us “walking” with a permanent limp due to diminished and lost skills.

Some would (and do) argue that this is progress – evolution. This new society does not need to know how to spell or do math. They don’t need cursive either. In the words of Zager and Evans: “…some machine is doing that for you…” Their bleak vision of mankind’s future may not have been completely off target. But beyond that, the act of using your brain to spell a word or to do math in your head stimulates specific regions of the brain. And those areas will grow withered and emaciated from lack of stimulation. So what, some say; the brain will repurpose those areas for other things than spelling and math. And while that may be true, given the intricate and complex engineering of our brains, that repurposing of those areas may not have the same positive effects on the health of our brains. Research has demonstrated that regular exercise of these areas used for spelling and math may help stave off future onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Humankind took, dragged, itself out of the caves and beds of leaves by continuously learning and developing new skills. We learned language – how to read and write; we learned math and physics – how to measure and build; we learned and we grew. And we created tools and new technology to give us more time to do other things, there are literally thousands upon thousands of examples. It used to take a person hours to do the laundry between the washing and drying, and much of that time was hands on labor. Now we throw the clothes into a machine, press a button, and walk away. If you have ever drilled a hole with a hand brace you’ll know how much time an electric drill saves. Cutting wood with a hand saw versus chainsaw or table saw. Going to see your grandparents on horseback versus a car or plane. No need to go on, you get it.

We have grown a culture, as a race of people, by learning and inserting new technology to make our lives better. And there are definitely some skills we’ve lost due to new technology that we’ll never look back and wish we hadn’t. But reading, writing, arithmetic? Those dear reader, are skills we dare not lose. Helping a driver see a kid behind them while backing up is truly awesome, as is spotting a car in the lane next to you. But we can’t allow ourselves to come to rely on the technology, leaving us with a loss of skills. As with so much of life, technology is a double edged sword and while capable of making us safer or freeing us from menial tasks, it comes with the risk that we can become weaker from it. Balance folks, it always comes back to balance!

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