Do Calculators and GPS Make Us Stupid?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest


“I’m not learning any more math.”  That was the firm declaration of one of my best friends in fourth grade.  He decided that he only needed to know how to use a calculator—all the rest was useless drivel that wouldn’t really matter in the “real” world.  Why bother knowing how to multiply when you could punch it out on the calculator?  Need any more convincing?  Things could get even uglier, making the calculator yet more attractive.  Consider the two words that could make even the nerdiest fourth grader shudder:  long division.

I encountered the calculator math mentality again when I was a teen.  Working in the family business, I learned to work the cash register and count back change.  “That will be $10.56, please”.  The customer hands me a twenty dollar bill.  “Thank-you.  Here is your change”.  I hand her four pennies (all at once), then four dimes (all at once), then 4 dollars one at a time, then a five dollar bill, calling out successively:  “That’s 10.60, 11 dollars, 12 dollars, 13, 14, 15, and 5 makes $20.”  If I had simple placed $9.44 in her hand, she would have given me a questioning look, if not outright asked me to double-check.  Reverse that today.  By the time I left the family business a few years later, the cash registers were getting smarter, reporting the amount of change to return to the customer.  Today, a cashier punches in the price along with the amount of cash from the customer, and then the cash register displays the amount of change to be returned (perhaps evening spitting out the required coins automatically into a dish).  Counting back change would be a strange, anachronistic ritual today.  Most younger customers wouldn’t understand what was happening.  Knowing how to add or subtract is not required of a modern cashier—and certainly not long division!

Today the trend continues.  I recently advised a transfer student in our engineering program who was having trouble in his second calculus course.  It turned out that he had taken the first calc course elsewhere, but the course was so watered down so that he merely skimmed over all the concepts using a calculator.  He only knew how to punch in a problem—which didn’t help when, during the second course, it became important to understand what was going on “under the hood” and to know what questions to ask in the first place (not simply which numbers to punch in the calculator). 

A similar phenomenon is the lost art of map reading.  Why bother understanding a legend or knowing how to measure a distance using the map scale when a GPS navigation system will take care of all that for you?  I admit that I have succumbed to the lure of this gadget.  Even though I am good with directions, I have a GPS navi unit in my vehicle.  I love the ability to estimate time to arrival, show alternate routes, identify nearby gas stations or restaurants, and more. 

The fear that technology would make us less intelligent or even less human is not new.  Plato feared the new technology of writing.  He “recognized that writing compacts the large and living structure of natural information and feared that detached parcels of written information, easily acquired, would take the place of genuine wisdom, arduously earned. Writing, he thought, would promote both vanity and stupidity.” (Albert Borgmann, Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 48)  Thousands of years later, we should still take care that our technology does not lead to vanity and stupidity.

Maybe it is acceptable that we use calculators instead of doing arithmetic in our heads, that we use GPS instead of reading a paper map.  These technologies can usually perform computational tasks faster than humans.  Tools that extend our abilities are not evil per se.  However, technological convenience can lead to sloth, laziness, or negligence.  Our technology can enable vice.  The tool is not a neutral bystander in these temptations.  Its very nature lures us by its usefulness and lulls us into complacency. 

How do we avoid this slippery slope?  If it is too strong a temptation, then perhaps we need to avoid those technologies altogether.  That would be unfortunate, because much good can come from the power of technology.  To what purpose should we put the extra time that we have saved? Rather than seeking more convenience (which usually means simply increasing our leisure time),  labor-saving technologies can help us serve God and serve others if we capitalize on that convenience by thinking more deeply about the results our technology quickly serves up, by asking significant and probing questions, by laboring more humanly in place of the mechanistic labor we are spared.  We ourselves will flourish and develop into more thoughtful people of integrity if we take proper advantage of our tools.  Calculators do not make us stupid—unless we let them.

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest