Tuesday, June 01, 2010

shift of cognitive burden

Today I am home in Arkansas after a whirlwind trip to Florida to bear witness to my wife's 8 week old grand niece, to share breathing space and sound and light with an infant from a new generation. On Thursday I had gotten got up very early to catch my flight then spent the day in the air along with many thousands, or millions of others. I am so amazed going from my hillside in Arkansas to the larger world where life is lived with greater speed and intensity. Moving between gates in the Atlanta airport is a huge, rather shocking dose of what is for many everyday reality...

Just barely over 100 years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight leading to the revolution in air travel. In that moment, Orville, pilot of the craft, was alone, there being no others in flight. Orville, the younger brother lived almost long enough to have shared breath on this lovely planet with me. He died in January 1948 and just a few months later, in November, I was born. And thus you can say that in two deep breaths, we have arrived at this. Henry Ford was another who lived almost long enough to have been alive in my own life. Ford died in 1947, and his life plus my own and a but a single year, have born witness to incredible change.

I had to gotten up at 3:30 AM to make my flight, and was thus napping, dozing, in my seat, relatively unconscious for most of the trip while far below my flight path were thousands or even millions of houses and buildings with thermostats controlling the comfort of their sleeping occupants, drawing upon a power grid of immense proportions.

Earlier in the blog, I'd mentioned that when one gains skill in the hands, the cognitive burden shifts from the brain to the hands themselves. You can see this by learning something that requires skill. The first time you hold a chisel and try to make a straight cut into wood on a marked line, you will observe that it takes a great deal of concentrated attention. Later, when your hand becomes familiar with the balance and feel of the chisel, more familiar with the intended operation, the qualities inherent in the materials, and the motions of the hand and arm of the chisel's use, the demand for concentrated attention is reduced. With enough practice, even highly skilled tasks become seemingly automatic.

The growth and development of the tools, facilities and processes of modern life parallels the development of skill in the hand itself. Just as the hands and more basic tools evolved toward seemingly automatic manipulation of materials and objects, so too have the complex tools of modern life. They do so by shifting cognitive burden from the mind to the machine... which seems to be OK as long as there seem to be real thoughtful, compassionate and caring men and women behind the curtain of technology, making decisions that have a human touch. Things seem OK as long as what we think we are getting what we want.

I want to go back to Friday's post on complexity for a minute. Do you see how very small things that seem so very simple add up to tremendous complexity? Very very small things... decisions that are made within the structure of the complex mechanism we experience as modern life are set in motion and take control.

Do we want to just go back to sleep, leaving the pilot in control? Do we want to awaken from sleep only to tell the steward how to flavor our drinks? There is actually a lot to think about, that demands that we be awake and at our best. We have placed so many of our small decisions in the "hands" of machines that minister unconsciously to our every perceived need, assuring our comfort while we hurtle toward the beyond.

How do we gain better control in our lives? How do we live with greater consciousness, greater sensitivity to the environment? I suspect that things are ultimately in our own hands or we unconsciously choose that they are not. In the final moments of the movie, Apollo 13, the character played by Tom Hanks, near the moment of impending disaster, looked in reverence at his own hands, realized his own creative power, and saved the mission from tragedy.

Let’s take a moment to look at our own hands and know that a promising future lies within our grasp, but that it most likely has to do with simple things. Cook, plant, make, fix, handle consciously, explore the creative engagement of human hands.

No comments:

Post a Comment