The other day I was on an elevator in a DC area business office. There were about 10 people in the small cube when Mr. 11 showed up at the last minute and decided to wedge himself in. After a moment, the elevator door slid to a close only to jerk itself back open. Mr. 11 stood silently still facing the door. The doors slid together again only to bounce back open a second time. Mr. 11 stood there quietly. About this time, other people in the elevator began to notice that the door was bouncing off Mr. 11’s briefcase. It was a bulky thing, bulging with papers. I was sure that somewhere deep in its recesses were secret codes for missile launches, or perhaps just his lunch, either way, his white knuckled clutch confirmed the vital nature of its contents.
When the door tried to close a third time, almost everyone was fixed on the edge of Mr. 11’s bag that was causing the chaos. As surely as it did the first two times, the doors thumped the bag and immediately opened back up. Still, Mr. 11 did nothing. He almost appeared amused by the peek-a-boo effect that he was creating for other people standing outside. My elevator-mates now gave out a collective sigh of resignation that their day had just gotten off to a bad start. Amazingly, as the door was starting to shut for the 4th time, no one said a word to Mr. 11. Instead, they chose to either look at their watches, suck angrily on their Starbucks to go lids, or start fumbling for their Blackberries. I reached down and gently slid Mr. 11’s briefcase a few inches back from the door. He would never have done this himself, because Mr. 11 was completely blind. I suppose the big shades he was wearing an his red tipped cane were just too subtle a clue for the others on board. The doors closed and we were finally on our way up. On the ride up , no one even acknowledged what had happened. They had already put the unpleasantness out of their minds and were busy trying not to think about anything.
I have thought of this event several times since it happened and truly wonder if this little elevator crisis isn’t somewhat representative of what we have become. Unlike our ancestors, we expect if not require everything in our lives to be in automatic. And when something does not go as planned, when the cogs in our giant Rube Goldberg machine jam, we are at best incapable and at worst unwilling to act on our own. Can we really think for ourselves without spell check and excel macros or is creative, critical, and independent thought simply dead?
After reflection, I believe that thinking is just changing. We once spent a great deal of thought on basic stuff like “how can I eat today,” or “how do I not get killed by a lion today.” Now that we have most of those basic problems solved, we have evolved our thinking into much more abstract domains. Think about the leap in thinking over just the past 50 years. In 1960 we were just beginning to think about how to store digital data on hard disks. Today we are putting gigabytes of information on drives the size of your pinky, and engaging in discussions on whether or not the robots we are building will kill us one day. UCLA conducted a study on technology and critical thinking where they concluded that technology is actually making us better at multitasking, but worse when it comes to creativity. You may read the summary at http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/is-technology-producing-a-decline-79127.aspx.
It is clear from these types of studies that we are not necessarily getting dumber or smarter, but that our thinking skills are shifting. What worries me is that as they shift, are we loosing critical thinking capabilities that were once considered essential to our daily survival? We can text and chat all day long for instance, but how good are we at thinking on our feet, face-to-face with a challenge? Are we losing our ability to relate to others? Are we still herd animals looking out for our neighbors or are we all castaways on some Face-book page? Is there hope for us when a Mr. 11 walks into our lives, or are we doomed to be nothing more than Blackberry toting zombies perpetually stuck on elevators?