I recently read Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was a fantastic book; way ahead of its time. It’s almost prophetic.
Historical Wisdom vs. Modern Intelligence
After a specific passage in the book, I had an answer to one of the great questions that Tim Ferris often asks his guests:
“What have you changed your mind about recently?”
I had held a strong opinion that people today are smarter than nearly everyone who has ever lived. This book changed my mind.
It got me to rethink my opinion by explaining how the average person in the early days of America was extremely literate, consumed nearly ever novel that came out, and was well known for getting into verbose lengthy debates with people from other countries. I break down the “why” in the example below, but the tldr is the “medium” of the written word as the primary way people consumed content led to much stronger minds.
I still believe we’re smarter in regards to the total knowledge that smart people today have. However, when it comes to our ability to logic, reason, philosophize, and perform similar deep thinking tasks, the average person back then was significantly brighter than the average person in the US today.
Examples From “Amusing Ourselves To Death”
Neil Postman, the author, foresaw the way that the medium of television (but we can extrapolate out to things like Youtube as well) actually affects the meaning and viewers. The medium by which we consume information significantly affects the way we understand and digest the information.
For example, consuming content from books requires deeper focus, slower thinking, and logical thought. We scrutinize the written word by its content alone. It’s hard for text on a page to trick or convince us of something unless the argument is rational. This is likely why early Americans were so smart in regards to reason and rationality.
Coca Cola isn’t an example in the book
Let’s use Coca Cola as another example. If you want to convince someone that Coke is good to drink through a letter, you must create a coherent reason for why.
Now compare that to a video advertisement. There needs to be no logical flow. It can be a simple illustration of an emotion–a smiling person enraptured by the sound of a can opening and the flavor of it. En masse, the former leads to a brain well-tested. The latter leads to an emotional decision to chase a feeling.
Another astute example in the book was how our mental image of Presidential candidates has shifted. In early America, most people wouldn’t have seen presidential candidates. So when they thought about a candidate, the person’s ideas and stances on different topics would have been evoked in their mind. Nowadays, when we think of a Presidential candidate, the person’s face comes to our mind.
All of the above is interesting, but I thought of a really practical take-away as well.
Breakthrough, Cost, Mitigation
There’s always a cost to new technology. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth paying, but we should try to mitigate the downside.
Breakthroughs and Costs
- The car removed the need to walk, so we walk less.
- The TV removed the need to entertain ourselves, so we are less creative. (see also: games, social media, messaging)
- The internet removed the need to remember, so we don’t remember as well.
- The GPS removed the need for a sense of direction, so less people can navigate.
On and on it goes…
But here’s the point I’ve been building to:
AI agents will remove the need to do things.
Digital assistants will manage our calendars, reply to emails, handle our to-do lists, order our groceries, and more.
As a society, it’s easy for most people to slowly become dependent on these advancements. Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe it’s a net-positive to have these inventions, but we are losing the organic paths to skills. If you wanted to recall something in the past, you wrote it down or remembered it. This built up that skill over time. If you needed to get to a different town, you used a map. This built up the ability to do so.
My take-away isn’t that we need to become luddites. It is that we need to adjust our education system and our lives to account for the advancements.
There needs to be a balance. We must find a way to keep our basic abilities sharp while still enjoying the benefits of technology. It’s like trying to stay fit. You don’t stop using cars. You set aside time to walk or run. In the same way, we should set aside time to be creative, to remember, to navigate.
I’m a hacker. I’m practical. I love tips and take-aways. So here are tips to myself (and to you) for combating the downsides of the tech we use everyday as well as the AI tools we’ll use tomorrow:
- Read more books
- Either walk, run, lift, or play a sport on most days
- Learn to enjoy doing hard things
- Take extended time off social media
- When go somewhere for the first time, try to remember your way back home
- Block time on your calendar for deep work
- Write at least a little bit each week
- Let kids experience and deal with a healthy amount of boredom and hardship
It’s clear to me that some people will do these things, but most won’t. Daniel Miessler nailed it in his post about The Great Bifurcation. A small number of people will do what’s required to stay healthy, sharp, well-founded, and versatile. Most people will atrophy or never evolve.
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