In the pub the other day I noticed a group of four young people sitting around a table. Three of them were completely engrossed in their mobile phones, mesmerised by whatever they were looking at on the screen, completely oblivious to their companions at the table or indeed to anyone or anything else around them. The fourth, a young woman, sat there looking around the room and occasionally taking a sip of her drink, just like someone who is alone and waiting for her friends to show up. Her friends were already there, at least physically, but their minds were somewhere else entirely, lost in cyberspace.
They weren't the only group doing that. Plenty of tables were occupied by groups in which every single person was absorbed in his or her phone.
What does that say about the state of the world today?
Is it just me getting older and lacking tolerance for a younger generation who do things differently to me? Or is there something more sinister going on?
Even if I am getting on a bit, I'm not a complete Luddite. I do carry a smartphone around with me and sometimes I've even been known to use it. It's quite handy being able to Google something when a question comes up, or to search for directions, or to check the weather radar to see if there's rain on the way. I've even been known to do that while in company with others, but generally what I'm doing with my phone then becomes part of the conversation. I don't ignore the people I'm with to focus exclusively on the screen. Does that make me old-fashioned?
If it does then I'm happy to be branded an old fart.
I value personal connections with my friends, so when I spend time with them I want to be with them mentally as well as physically. Let's face it, if they're not interesting enough to be worth my time and focus then I'm probably not going to be spending time with them in the first place. Having said that, even if someone is a crashing bore, and I'm sure we all know at least one person in that category, they're still a human being and due the respect that comes with that. When I get trapped in an interaction with them, I might feel uncomfortable and want to extricate myself as soon as possible but I don't do that by treating the person with disrespect. It seems to me that ignoring people is a sure sign of disrespect; it is, as my father would have said, "bloody rude."
A real conversation is both verbal and non-verbal and if I'm not giving my attention to the people I'm with, I'm going to miss the greater part of both of those things. The art of conversation may not be dead but if what's going on is any indication of the way of the future, it won't be long before the funeral bell tolls.
Meanwhile, in the pub, food arrived at the youngsters' table. Two of the phone-users remained oblivious but the third glanced up from his device, slack-jawed, blank-eyed, uncomprehending, with a look of bovine stupidity on his face. Now I enjoy a game of judging the hell out of people just as much as anyone else does, but when I'd finished labelling that young fellow as an idiot based purely on that one moment, I had to stop and think about it.
Was he really as stupid as that look on his face made him out to be?
I probably look just like that first thing in the morning, when I stumble out of bed but haven't had my first cup of tea.
He's probably not stupid, it's just that his mind was somewhere else, distracted by whatever distant world his phone had transported him to. But that makes him look stupid, and indeed it makes him behave as though he were stupid at least until he brings his focus back to the world around him.
I've seen other evidence of this kind of artificially-induced stupidity, as I'm sure you have, too. People walking down the street so absorbed in their phone screen that they don't notice they're about to walk into a lamp-post or step out in front of an oncoming bus. Someone so distracted that they wander off and forget the toddler they left in its stroller outside a shop. Someone waiting for a bus who doesn't notice that the bus has come and gone while they were tripping in cyberspace.
You may also have noticed how when someone is asked a question, they'll automatically go for their phone and Google it. Hell, I do it myself! We don't learn stuff any more, because everything we'll ever need to know is just a few taps on the screen away. Now that we have the ChatGPT app I'm sure we're going to be even less inclined to engage our brain and actually think for ourselves; why expend the mental energy when there's an app for that? "Hey Siri, remind me, which way is up?"
A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article that touched, somewhat humorously, on the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Those of you who are familiar with Douglas Adams's classic Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy will know what that Answer is. Joking with a friend, I asked him, "what is six times seven?" What did he do? He grabbed his phone, called up a calculator app, punched a few virtual keys, and then the penny dropped and he laughed. A calculator? Seriously? I do not believe that he couldn't have done that very simple bit of arithmetic in his head. It just didn't occur to him to think about it while his phone was in his hand. That is laziness and learned helplessness and leads to a slippery slope down to where we genuinely will not be able to do such a simple calculation unaided.
You know, there's enough genuine stupidity in the world today and we really don't need to be adding to it by employing technology to induce it in otherwise intelligent people. Surely it's not beyond the wit of humanity to make our technology work for us rather than the other way around. Or perhaps it is.
The hand-wringing and doomsaying about the evils of Artificial Intelligence haven't so far extended to considering the effects of artificially-induced stupidity. I wonder if the current trend continues whether AI will render RI (real intelligence) redundant, so that if we plotted the average human's IQ against time we'd see a parabolic curve soaring up from the dawn of time to our current era and then plunging back down again to the point at which, somewhere in the future, the average person will have the same level of intelligence as an amoeba.
Artificial Intellgence won't spell the end of the human race, but artificial stupidity just might.