To what extent has technology had a negative impact on the skill levels of people? (A-level 2010 question)
by Steven Ooi
With their amazing ingenuity, human beings have for centuries conceived, invented and designed machine after machine to make their lives easier and satisfy their desires. Machines act as multipliers of human ability that allow people to accomplish more in life. It is ironic, however, that in creating machines that are ever more useful, Man has made himself ever less useful. Machines have made human beings redundant in many lines of work, and even where humans are still needed in the production of goods and delivery of services, their levels of skill have largely declined. It may be true that more advanced technology has created a need for new, high-tech skills which have replaced many of the old skills. However, it is this writer’s contention that the new skills pale in comparison with the old skills in terms of the level of intricacy and finesse. Hence I believe that technology has had a negative impact on the skill levels of people to a large extent.
Our professional skills are a major casualty of automation. Across a wide swathe of industries, the role of human beings has been minimised as machines take over a myriad of functions. In manufacturing, processes from the slicing of potatoes to the soldering of computer chips have been automated. In the aviation sector, today’s pilots rarely fly their aircraft manually, but rather through a highly sophisticated ‘fly-by-wire’ system which uses an electronic interface; flight control computers determine how to control the actuators to provide the desired response. Commands from the computers are even input without the pilot’s knowledge. With autopilot systems, pilots are often actively involved only in the takeoff and landing phases of flight. While a pilot’s skill is called upon in a crisis situation or when the avionics fail, these are only exceptional situations – the level of skill required of the pilot is considerably lower than before.
In the area of sports, our skills have also largely declined as a result of technological advancement. The proliferation of new and ever more advanced forms of indoor entertainment has enticed us to carry out more and more of our recreational activities in the comfort of our homes. In the past, children typically went outdoors to have a good time. They played football and other sports and swam in rivers. While sports are still popular with the youth, many have become addicted to electronic games played on their tablet computers and video game consoles like the PlayStation. On average, they spend significantly less time than before playing sports. English football manager Harry Redknapp has bemoaned the ‘PlayStation culture’ which is making it increasingly difficult to find promising young English footballers.
To be sure, playing video games takes skill too. However, these skills have little value or substance in the real world. Being able to move your fingers dexterously is far less useful in real life than the ability to move your whole body dexterously, as the latter gives you a feeling of physical confidence which can then translate into greater overall confidence and self-esteem as a person. Furthermore, the latter can save your life in a dangerous situation.
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Perhaps the most deleterious deterioration in human skills is in the area of interpersonal skills. Information technology (IT) as well as mobile communications technology have no doubt enhanced the speed and efficiency of communication by leaps and bounds. However, the obsession with speed and efficiency in communication has made people very reluctant to spend time to express themselves thoughtfully, articulately and beautifully in language. The art of communication – a time-honoured skill – has been sacrificed on the altar of speed and efficiency. Where once people would spend hours lovingly writing a letter to their friends and loved ones sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings, today they spend five seconds posting a picture or brief comment on the other person’s Facebook page, and do not even bother to type their words in full. They use “n” for “and” and “LOL” for “laugh out loud”, and emoji become a convenient substitute for a thoughtfully crafted expression of one’s feelings. Seeking to move at the blinding speed of computers, people today also lack the patience and the attention span to listen carefully to what others say and to ponder it. Of course, listening well is just as central to good communication as speaking or writing well. There is a tendency today to rush to judgement, as evidenced by the flood of visceral, frequently hare-brained comments on the online social network Twitter. Many people have experienced a severe degradation of their communication skills.
Interpersonal skills, however, go well beyond communication skills. Two other precious capabilities sacrificed on the altar of technology are empathy and social skills. I consider empathy to be a skill, not just a quality, because it can be improved with practice. When one spends countless hours engaging in battles in a virtual fantasy world or staring at pictures on Instagram rather than engaging in the more holistic verbal and nonverbal communication face-to-face with others, it becomes more difficult to put oneself in a real person’s shoes. Psychological research has shown that young people who spend a lot of time playing online games have lower levels of empathy than their peers.
Some may argue that people have more than replaced their old skills with very sophisticated IT skills. Indeed, it is easy to form this impression when one sees the female executive in her chic office outfit sliding her fingers on her smartphone or tablet and running application after application. However, the truth is that the gadgets of today are extremely user-friendly, almost idiot-proof. The skill levels needed to operate today’s computers cannot hold a candle to the finesse that our ancestors in the days of yore needed to carry out such intricate tasks as stitching a garment by hand, hunting with a bow and arrow, and performing surgery without advanced tools.
All said, I believe that technology has had a negative impact on the skill levels of people to a large extent. The gains in skill are woefully unable to compensate for what has been lost. While the progress of technology is inexorable, we should be watchful that it does not bring about the regression of the human species. A little reflection is in order: we should once in a while take a step back from automation and practise our good, old-fashioned skills so that we retain our wonderful human keenness and competitiveness. One can buy a manual car instead of an automatic one; perform mental calculations rather than use a calculator; and write a long, heartfelt letter to our dear friend instead of a ten-word tweet. The machines may be impressive, but let’s not forget who designed them.
Copyright 2012 Steven Ooi
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The blogger, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, retired from a distinguished 14-year career as an English and GP tutor at the age of 42.
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