Smart is the new dumb

Note: This essay was first published in Paleo Magazine

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

Pablo Picasso

“The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”

Karl Marx

This will come as a surprise to many of our so-called “digital natives,” but back in the Paleo, people actually experienced their bodies and the world directly, with no outside intervention. We used our nervous systems to feel our flesh, our habitat, our movements and each other. We used our inborn proprioceptors, interoceptors, chemoreceptors and other sensory organs to know our experience and our tribe.

And it worked.

For several million years in fact.

But today, we stand poised to throw it all away and replace our innate physical intelligence with artificial sensors, “wearable devices,” “heads up technologies,” “smart fabrics,” “FitBits,” “Body Media” and “personal informatics.” Apparently, the human nervous system–the most sophisticated system in the known universe–just isn’t good enough anymore.

The consequences of this mindless love affair with all things digital will be immense. The mammalian nervous system is without question the most sublime creation in the known universe; we are just beginning to scratch the surface of its structure, function and potential. New discoveries in neuroplasticity and epigenetics reveal the power of training and practice to shape our bodies and behavior; we know how learning and skill development work at the cellular level. We know that transformation comes with concentrated attention and high quality repetitions. But rather than building on these discoveries with actual experience, we are taking a wild leap over our native capability, diving head first into a synthetic, disembodied future.

To be sure, some of these “smart” devices will be put to good use, in clinical, therapeutic or scientific settings. But when they’re mass-marketed to the general public, these technologies will simply serve as prosthetic devices for people who don’t need prosthetic devices. As a consequence, the body’s innate intelligence will begin to atrophy.

This effect will be similar to what happens when we consume substances that are normally produced by the brain or body. That is, exogenous substances tend to displace their endogenous counterparts. If you’re taking large amounts of morphine, cocaine, marijuana or testosterone, the body will cut back on the production of its native analogues. Similarly, once we strap on external sensors, our native capacities for sensation will begin to fade away.

Our culture seems fundamentally incapable of learning from experience. From stone tools onward, every technological invention in human history has come with an upside and a downside. But today, we are infatuated with flashing lights and drunk on our own cleverness. Our new technology, so small and clean and perfect, appears to be neutral and nearly free. But the downside will be even more distance from our bodies, from the land and from our experience.

In particular, advocates of “smart” devices seem to be either ignorant or in denial of the social consequences of their inventions. The human body comes pre-wired with mirror neurons and a social resonance circuit that allows us to transmit and understand human emotion. We have an innate, physical capacity to feel what other people are feeling. This system allows us to synchronize and coordinate emotion and behavior, a crucial factor in both Paleo and modern settings.

But the resonance circuit is a trainable, use-it-or-lose-it system. We become more sensitive to one another with practice; likewise, the system atrophies with disuse. Just as labor saving devices and transport systems have been disastrous for human muscular systems, so too will the new technologies leave us as sensory and social cripples.

Technology has already degraded human communication to an astonishing degree. But how much of a price are we willing to pay for these gee-whiz toys? Hasn’t the cell phone wreaked enough havoc in the social world as it is? Do you really want to have a conversation with someone whose attention is wandering the far reaches of simulated reality? Is it any wonder that early adopters of Google’s new “glass” technology have already been described as “glassholes?”

Fitness trackers and similar devices will only serve to confirm what we already know: people aren’t getting enough exercise. Will anyone on the planet be surprised by this finding? Do we really need an expensive technological device to tell us that we’re spending too much time on the couch? The implicit message of “smart” technologies is extremely disempowering: your nervous system is inadequate. You can’t know your own flesh or behavior, but if you buy our product, you’ve got a chance.

“Smart” technologies are simply more nail in the coffin of the human body, health and social relationship. We don’t need more innovation; what we really need is unnovation. We need to learn to thrive with what we’ve got–beautiful, competent bodies with immense potential. So stick with the fundamentals. Learn your body first. Feel what you feel. Hone your senses. Do your reps. Expose yourself to the real world and find out what your naked body can really do. You might well be surprised how far you can go with flesh alone.