Do you abdicate your decision-making? Do you give away a decision-making process that you actually need to develop and refine?
Sure, we all do this now to a degree. We let our smartphones undertake repetitive and routine heavy lifting, along with other technology. But think about it. Are we doing this too casually? Are we doing it too much?
I imagine you are familiar with Amazon’s Echo, and of course, Siri. As entertaining as both can be — not to mention helpful — are we overusing, over-trusting, and underestimating the impacts? Are we allowing children at too young an age to use these tools, rather than thinking for themselves?
Personally, I go out of my way not to rely on every available means of abdicating critical thought processes.
Examples? Let’s see… I rarely use a calculator (in order to do math in my head), I’m skeptical of much of what runs through my various feeds, and I make myself read news from sources with a political bent unlike my own. (It’s amazing how much you can learn this way.)
Now, before you label me a Luddite, permit me to explain. A recent New York Times opinion piece, Co-Parenting With Alexa, raises this issue in a very specific context — the use of the Amazon Echo at the hands of a three-year-old.
Hmmm. As a mother, I’m furrowing my brow. Shouldn’t our children be developing reasoning skills? Shouldn’t we encourage them to make choices? Doesn’t that include learning to own those choices, and the consequences? Shouldn’t we, the adults, ensure that we’re doing the same?
Not only does this thoughtful Times article point out the extent to which children will trust machines, but consider this:
… how do we teach our children to question not only the security and privacy implications but also the ethical and commercial intentions of a device designed by marketers? Our kids are going to need to know where and when it is appropriate to put their trust in computer code alone…
Don’t you find this concerning, and not only for kids? I can’t help but worry that we are increasingly apt to delegate decisions in the name of convenience, and we are giving that power to people, agendas, and ultimately outcomes we don’t truly know. And yes, of course, this issue isn’t black-and-white; it’s a matter of context and degree.
Software Saves Time! Software Is a Win-Win!
Now, we could argue that any time we hop online, onto a smartphone, or any number of apps, we know what we’re doing. We understand that our personal data is being gathered, used, and options presented are “shaped.” In other words, content is filtered and micro-targeted. Not only are we aware of this, but we recognize the value. For example, I like that Amazon suggests books to me based on my past buying behavior. Most of the time, I find this useful. Another example: I’m delighted that the supermarket sends me coupons through email based upon my previous purchases.
But when the results that are returned on a Google search are skewed according to assumptions about our habits, preferences, and location, do we realize it? Do we just ignore the reality that a number of choices are being made for us?
If you’re a marketer, this is a feature. This is simply a commercial enterprise “working as designed” targeting customers in need of a product or service, while eliminating competing “noise,” then facilitating purchase or consumption.
News as Noise, Noise in News
We see this in other realms, too; think about the recent revelations of Facebook ads by the Russians — on Google and Gmail as well — seeking to sway our views and also, to pit us against one another. Consider the dilemma of “fake news” and the multiple ways it is being defined and interpreted.
To what extent do we want social media algorithms determining what we see? If our primary news source is Facebook, isn’t this abdicating decision-making as well?
By the way, given the number of decisions we make — and if you knew how many decisions we make a day, you might be surprised at the number — you would understand that I am not against some assistance in decision-making. We all need our conveniences and timesavers these days. However, the issue is the extent to which we are giving up choices that matter, choices that accumulate, choices that take on greater heft than we realize, and the habit of critical and independent thinking that we need in steering our own lives.
Danger, Will Robinson!
Gadgetry is not the only thing to replace our skill sets. We may be allowing our map reading skills to gather dust as we use a GPS, but this has little downside (we tell ourselves)… until we’re lost on a back road with no cell service.
But if we’re giving up significant decisions, if we’re following only the recommendations and selections produced by software algorithms, if we rely exclusively on online information that we take as accurate — product reviews for example, with sources we don’t vet or common sense we don’t exercise — aren’t we stepping willingly into a danger zone where we don’t take responsibility for decisions, and we are, without realizing, abdicating them?
Influence… or Control?
Frankly, I don’t like other people making decisions for me, at least not decisions that impact me in any significant way. Where to eat dinner on date night? What to eat on almost any night? I’m fine with that. I don’t consider it significant — as long as the food is healthy.
What sort of new tires to get for my car? Again, while this isn’t a decision that has no impact, it is an area where I have no expertise. I am going to take the recommendations of others with that knowledge whom I trust.
But other decisions? Choices over where I should live or how I should live? Choices to do with my money or my work?
How easy it is, especially for women, to fall under the spell of others when it comes to these critical issues. How often we hand over decision-making to a partner, especially a spouse. This kind of abdication of choice is all too prevalent in marriage, often in the name of “compromise” or keeping the peace.
Generational Luddites? Maybe, Maybe Not
As I write these words, I can almost hear my mid-century mother warning of the dangers of too much television. Would it obliterate my capacity to imagine? Would it dull my desire to read? Again, I come back to context and degree. Moreover, television was not so omnipotent as today’s technology.
Listen, I enjoy my smartphone, its GPS, and a small number of apps. I’m happy with occasional reading recommendations, and coffee coupons courtesy of the grocery store. That said, I’m more or less aware of what is taking place in these instances, and I don’t feel coaxed or controlled in my decision-making. But I make it a point to restrict the extent to which I, personally, rely on certain types of technology — my version of “use it or lose it” — or for that matter, the influence of other people.
I don’t want to throw away my personal choices. I don’t want to abdicate my ability to reason. And I do want to retain the ability to question and to think critically, even if that means a little less convenience.
I welcome your thoughts.
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