4 min read

Train, Technology and Stupidity

I arrived at the Mountain View train station at 8.52 AM, eager to go into the office after a long time to attend the Product-Design summit. I had checked the schedule the night before and decided to catch the train that was scheduled to depart at 9.03 AM, giving me plenty of time to be in the office by 10.30 AM. I left home at 8.36 AM, to make sure I'm at the station a few minutes ahead of time. There was a time in my life when I could afford running behind schedule but I feel like that was a long time ago now. As a parent, I take my time more seriously. My time is not entirely mine to take for granted anymore.

As I parked my car at the station, I saw a sign that announced that the same platform was going to be used for both Northbound and Southbound routes due to an electrification project. A train pulled up to the platform as I walked from the parking lot, but since it was only 8.50 AM, I didn't bother checking where that was headed. A minute after the train departed, a screen at the platform announced that the next train, at 9.42 AM, was on time. I stared at the screen for a few seconds, curious about the status of the train that was supposed to arrive at 9.03 AM. No luck. Slightly confused, I concluded that the sign was broken. After a couple of minutes, I opened the PDF copy of the schedule that I had stored on my device a few weeks ago. There was no train at 9.42 AM! The person next to me was wondering about that too. He struck up a conversation with me while checking the schedule online and found that there was a temporary schedule posted, just for this week, also due to the maintenance work! Apparently the Northbound trains were now at 8.50 AM and 9.42 AM. Yes, the 8.50 AM train was the one I missed, one that I'd seen arriving and stood by as it passed. One that I was too smart and too confident to check up on. As I sat there cursing myself about the time I had to kill waiting rather than riding, the biting wind of the unusually cold California winter whipped through my clothes, making every strand of hair on my body stand on end, as if to line up and jump off the platform and into the tracks.

We talk about technology making us dumber as if it happens overnight. But it isn’t quite like that. It doesn’t happen in an obvious way, and not in a manner that's as outlandish, or abrupt as we might think. It's insidious. It makes us comfortable first, so we lean into it, then gets us habituated and finally dependent. There's a gradual washing away of our capabilities that you only realize when it's a bit too late.

Had this train episode happened in the days before we had cell phones, I'd have obviously talked to the officer in the train about where it was headed. But I didn't. Because I knew it wasn't the train I needed to board. Because I knew what the schedule was, and I knew technology would not fail me. I felt stupid. In this case, one could argue that technology didn’t fail me, that I was the one at fault because I relied on a schedule that was weeks old, and that I was stupid to do that. I’d agree. But it’s what the reliance on technology has made me over time.

The promise of technology, at least as it's told by those who extoll unhinged technological advancements, those who stand to profit or benefit in a significant way from its adoption, is that it aids us. That it isn't a replacement for our faculties but augments them in a way that makes us superhumans. But to morph into superhumans is to lose our humanity. If we're good with technology, our enhanced relationship with it, especially those that are digital in nature, reduces the quality of our relationships with other humans. Some might refute that claim, but it's a matter of simple math. The more time we spend in the digital world, the less comfortable and detached we get from the physical world, which means we become increasingly out of touch with nature, other beings and other humans.

I've felt stupid several times before, especially when using tools like Google Maps. The London cab drivers are famous for keeping the entire map of London in their heads. Although not as well known, the same thing can be said about Indian auto rickshaw drivers. They know every nook and cranny of a city. And here I find myself not knowing the routes to places, stores that I routinely go to, even after repeated visits. In the short-term it's not that I lose my ability to navigate to places, but the problem is that since I don't exercise that part of my brain, over time the neural networks formed to help me navigate are weakened and repurposed for something else. Proponents of technology might say that I'm better off, we are better off, directing our amazing capabilities as humans to something more useful than keeping the routes in our minds. But here's the thing – by losing the networks that are responsible and good at solving such spatial problems, we don't know what else we're losing. By not knowing, and not even attempting to know, the second-order effects of a change like that, we risk analyzing the impact of technology through a narrow lens.

Although we started with the humble aim of building technology that can do what humans are naturally good at, we are being told, not accidentally, or unintentionally, that we have reached a point where our anatomy and evolutionary make-up is holding us back, and that we should aim to outgrow the capabilities of the primitive brain that we have inherited, that reason, rationality, science, logic, productivity, technology, efficiency and throughput are the masters that should dictate our evolution in the future.