WIRED’s spiritual advice columnist on automation, productivity, and what it means to be human.

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I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I’m a phenomenal parallel parker, but ever since getting a car with parking-assist, I’ve found myself opting to let the car take over. I realize this particular skill of mine is one that will soon be worthless (like driving generally), but I can’t help feeling like I’m losing something essential. Am I contributing to the general passivity and dumbing down of the human species? —IDLING

Dear Idling,

Given the skill sets we humans have lost over the course of our history—archery, celestial navigation, and the ability to track animals come to mind—I don’t know that the obsolescence of parking skills counts as a blow to the species, especially considering that it’s an ability people often lose through perfectly mundane circumstances. Moving to the suburbs, say. It’s true that we’re the only animal to have mastered the art of driving, and that the gradual automation of the car often makes it feel as though we’re abdicating some essential feature of our intelligence. Of course, it’s hard to say what “human intelligence” even means these days. The definition is always changing, mostly in reaction to whatever new aptitude machines have picked up.

I can sympathize, though, with your uneasiness. We in the 21st century have so few skills compared to our predecessors, and the ones we can claim (multitasking, photo editing, speaking with authority about long-form articles we haven’t read) don’t feel especially advantageous. Assuming you’re prone to the usual apocalyptic anxieties, each atrophied talent feels like just one more thing you’ll inevitably have to relearn when some catastrophe obliterates our modern infrastructure and drives us back into the wilderness.

But let’s start with the more immediate effects. Will losing this skill make you dumber or less competent in other areas of your life? Probably not. The reality is that we are constantly outsourcing our intelligence to unconscious processes—not to machines but to muscle memory. If you think back on the first time you drove a car, you’ll recall how even the simplest maneuvers required attention. Over time, though, you no longer had to consciously think about signaling, turning, or staying centered in the lane. Undoubtedly there have even been times where you were so absorbed in a podcast, or even a regular old thought, that you found yourself at your destination with little memory of having maneuvered yourself there. Parallel parking might require some concentration, but most drivers are habituated enough to the rote choreography of driving that they can do it in their sleep (quite literally, as some Ambien-takers have discovered).

You probably don’t fret over your ability to drive without consciously thinking about it, or worry that doing so is dulling your mental acuity. The ability to perform physical actions mindlessly, through habituation, is evolutionarily advantageous in that it frees our minds to take on higher-level cognitive tasks. Those who become proficient at musical instruments often speak of transferring their intelligence to their fingers, such that they can perform all sorts of complex mental operations that have nothing to do with playing. Einstein once claimed that he would take to the piano when he was trying to work out difficult mathematical problems.

One could argue that technology is just an extension of this process. In fact, throughout history, the case for automation has relied on the notion that machines would take on the tedium of brute labor so we could devote ourselves to higher pursuits. The housewife, liberated from the drudgery of laundry day, would use her leisure hours to write sonnets or study French. The factory worker would learn to code. Perhaps the concentration that parallel parking once demanded of your mental RAM can now be used to compose haiku or contemplate your five-year plan. You might think of automation as an opportunity to become, as one AI company founder put it, “better at being human.”

A man in an easy chair warms his feet with a campfire.

Of course, it’s hard to say what being a better human even means when the definition (as mentioned earlier) is always changing. Advocates of self-driving cars often rhapsodize about increased productivity, insisting that our previously wasteful commutes will be spent catching up on emails or building sales reports. But these skills, too, will soon be outsourced to AI systems, which are becoming better all the time at those intellectual tasks we’ve long believed to be ours alone—tasks that are now derided, like physical labor, as rote and dehumanizing. Maybe they are. Perhaps one day soon, liberated from both driving and mindless busy work, we’ll have time to take up those hobbies we’ve been promised for centuries. Then again, who needs to learn French when there’s Google Translate? As for coding and writing sonnets—language models can do that too.

What I’m suggesting is that there’s a self-fulfilling element to conversations about automation. It’s not so much that machines are relieving us of activities that are intrinsically rote and mechanical; it’s more that a skill comes to seem rote and mechanical when a machine learns to do it. An ability only begins to appear “worthless,” as you put it, when it can be executed by highly profitable technologies. At the moment, our talents and aptitudes are being made obsolete at such a rate that many people, like you, are uneasy about where this trajectory might end. If one pole of the apocalyptic spectrum has us returning to the land to reclaim our primitive roots, the other (found in the likes of WALL-E and Infinite Jest) has us glued to screen-equipped recliners, stupefied by entertainment and sustained by a steady drip of intravenous milkshakes while the economy, fully automated, carries on without us.

I imagine, Idling, that those nightmare scenarios are looping in the back of your head as you listlessly watch your car maneuver itself into a parking space. Maybe you’re wondering whether that dystopia has already arrived. The trajectory of modern technological progress is itself largely reflexive and unconscious, at least as we experience it. One day you’re racking your brain trying to remember how many s’s are in possession, the next your phone is completing the word before you’ve fully articulated it to yourself. One day you’re slamming on your brakes to avoid hitting a deer, the next your car is jolting to a stop before you’ve noticed the animal in your path. We consumers are not asked to vote or weigh in on the new devices, features, and apps that will inevitably shape our lives. It’s completely reasonable to worry that you might look up at some point and find yourself at a historical destination that you never consciously chose.

All of which is to say, you’re right to pause and question this technology. Given how quick we are to adapt to and assimilate novel forms of automation, it’s doubly important to consider whether a given skill is something you’re willing to relinquish. In that spirit, I’m going to avoid prescribing anything concrete (what is advice but one more automated solution?) and instead encourage you to continue thinking about what you are prepared to give up. Are there certain boundaries that you’re not willing to cross? Or is your humanity just a moving target, its definition staked on whatever remains after the rest has been offloaded onto devices? The willingness to think through these questions, consider their consequences, and commit to a course of—literal—action is itself virtuous and worthwhile. It’s one thing, at least for the time being, that we alone can do.

Faithfully,

Cloud


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