Is Convenience Killing Choice?

forkTechnology has streamlined so many aspects of modern life that it can be difficult to remember a time when little electronic gadgets didn’t rule the world. Although millions of Americans remain inseparable from their smartphones, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the country’s dependence on technology. In fact, a growing number of scholars and cultural observers are worried that today’s latest innovations are becoming too efficient for humanity’s own good.

Take Google’s self-driving car, for instance. One neuroscientist recently laid out this morbid scenario: You are riding in a self-driven vehicle on a narrow bridge when suddenly a school bus swerves into your lane. Should the car veer off the bridge and thus save the children in the bus, or continue driving along like normal? While that question is undoubtedly difficult to answer, one fact of the matter is abundantly clear: whatever decision is made, it won’t be coming from the person in the driver’s seat. Human existence is guided by choice. As machines begin to make more and more of our decisions, people could become stripped of important deliberative processes and critical thinking skills.

Another example of technology’s diminishing effect on decision-making can be seen in something called the “smart fork.” This handy utensil tracks its movement from plate to mouth, monitoring how much a person eats and warning them if they overdo it. While certainly useful, the smart fork reduces a person’s incentive to study their own diet or question the fatty nature of today’s food culture. “Instead of regulating the food industry to make food healthier,” one writer says, “we’re giving people smart forks.” In an effort to combat this overly convenient mindset, some companies are rolling out products that seek to strengthen a person’s “digital willpower.” For example, many energy efficient power strips will automatically turn off a plugged-in component when it enters standby mode. The German-designed Caterpillar power strip, on the other hand, addresses the same issue by writhing around and vibrating. The idea is to draw a person’s attention to the amount of power they’re consuming, not simply to turn off the lights automatically when they leave the room.



  1. What’s the most important fact to remember about using technology?
  1. How far should governments go in using technology in their operations?


Source: Clive Thompson, “Relying on Algorithms and Bots Can Be Really, Really Dangerous,” Wired, March 25, 2013. Photo by Hapilabs.