Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tech Devices and Vices: I Want Your Story

       I'm a guy who greatly values his independence and self-reliance. So I'm ambivalent about tech devices that are supposed to make life ever more effort-free and fun, but also make us more physically and mentally dependent on capabilities that take over from those of our own bodies and brains.  To tell the truth, I prefer hard challenges to easy, guaranteed-risk-free fun.  I'd rather run the Badwater 137 miler again (across Death Valley and up Mt. Whitney) than have a lifetime free pass to Disney World.  The older I get, the more eager I am not to waste a day. I have no interest in a ride that gives me the passive thrill of being strapped into a  flying chair.  I'd rather go for a long run. 
       Or climb a mountain, or do a hike with friends, or join a group of people fighting an approaching forest fire, or haul rocks from a stream bed and hand-mix mortar to build a flight of stone steps.  Or cook a dinner with fresh ingredients from scratch, or have a lively conversation with bright people who challenge my thinking or have thought-provoking stories to tell.  All of it without so much as a smart phone in my pocket.
       And that's where you come in.  I'd be interested in hearing from you, if you're willing, about an experience you've had (or a perspective you have) about one of the many "technologies of fun or convenience" that have come into our lives in recent years or decades. The little devices or apps that relieve you of a bit more of your physical or mental effort--whether it's an automatic door opener, the GPS in your car, or a performance-enhancing drug.  I'm collecting anecdotes for a forthcoming project, and I hope you can be a part of it. 
       I got the idea a few years ago while doing research for my book The Longest Race, which was published last year.  I had come across a study of hundreds of London taxi drivers, in which researchers did brain scans to compare two groups: drivers who had relied on GPS to find their way around the city for at least the previous three years, and those who had relied only on their own knowledge of the city's notorious tangle of streets.  The study found that in the drivers who relied on GPS, the part of the brain that is central to mental mapping and memory--the hippocampus--had shrunk, and was signficantly smaller on average than that of those who had navigated without GPS.
       That didn't exactly surprise me. As a runner, I know that a muscle that isn't exercised will weaken, so maybe that's also true of the brain. But it still hit me as a revelation.  I began to wonder about other devices (and apps) designed to make work or play easier.  Is there a cost to such increasing ease?  If more and more of our tasks are taken over by little technologies, are we becoming more generally passive or weak or dependent--or in some sense less alive?
       I'm not anti-tech.  Technology has been put to many wondrous and life-enhancing--and life-saving--uses.  But it has also been put to destructive or just plain absurd uses.  If you've had an encounter with a device that you think might be of questionable value, I'd be interested in hearing.  Some examples of devices or apps I might question:
     -  Gasoline-powered leaf blower
     -  Automatic door-opener at Whole Foods or Walmart
     -  Data-collecting toilet (that automatically scans your poop and transmits data on any medical abnormalities to the health department) (No kidding!)
     -  Performance-enhancing drugs of the kind used by Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and a few hundred other rich athletes
     -  Runner's heart monitor and pedometer
     -  Phone menus, courtesy of your insurance company, bank, or any other large organization you have a problem with and want to talk to someone in authority about
     -  Power screwdrivers
     -  Power lawnmowers for small suburban lawns
     -  Athletic shoes with steel springs in the midsoles
     -  Microwave ovens
     -  Hands-free voice recognition app for texting while driving
     -  Porn websites
     -  Self-checkout in stores
     -  Pain meds advertised on TV
     -  Prescription drugs that only a licensed physician can determine the need for, advertised on TV to the general public
     -  Robo calls from political campaigns
     Or any of a thousand others.  If you have an anecdote or opinion about any single one of them--or about their cumulative effects--let me know!  I'd also like to expand the above list, if you can help me think of devices you find to be intriguing, even if you're not yet sure what to make of them. You can either comment here or send an e-mail to me at: