The lessons of mental arithmetic….

There is a seductive power to automation. It takes things that can seem difficult, tedious or even pointless to do and give us an easy and apparently reliable way out.

There is however a catch; if we automate what we do not understand, we become unintentionally stupid.

I was reminded of this over the weekend as I observed a conversation thread about the way we use Google, and those who use it for “research”. The nature of algorithms and SEO makes Google a battleground for narrative warfare for those who want us to accept their version of the truth. The danger is that what we quote as research has dubious provenance.

When I was at school in Scotland, which is admittedly a considerable time ago, with a very unique ethos, I had to do an O level in arithmetic. I questionedthe logic of it – it seemed such a trivial thing at the time, but decades later I am ever thankful for it.

The O level was a timed test, no calculators of any sort, and no working paper – it was a test of mental acuity. The pass rate was 90%. Something like 120 questions over 90 minutes. Some challenging questions around cube roots and compound interest and the like, but I passed. (I also did an O level in marine navigation, involving tide tables and sextants, and conversion of compass reading to true readings. As I said, it was a distinctive curriculum). All seems a bit bizarre now when it is all automated, but I recognise a powerful legacy.

There is a danger in taking what a machine tells us if we don’t have a reference point. Even now, when doing calculations, even spread sheets, I have an internal sense checker, looking over my shoulder to see if what I am accepting seems reasonable. It’s the same with travelling – an internal auditor of the satnav. Provided the data entry is correct of course, machines are almost never wrong, but the sense checker is a gift for when we do get the data entry wrong. The little voice that says “go check!”

Google doesn’t offer us that. We can still only do that manually, and that requires time and effort. Even now when reading, I go to original source on those ideas and insights I get that I want to develop further. I really liked Dan Pink’s book “Drive”, but also know much of what he wrote was informed by Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards’ which was in turn informed by the academic work of people like Teresa Amabile and Jerome Bruner, amongst many others. I like to know the company I am keeping. Mine is not an academic interest, I’m just happier when I understand the raw materials going into the work I value and am going to rely on. It takes time and effort, and fortunately I enjoy it.

Google is not your friend. Nor for that matter is anything that provides us with easy convenient answers. If it’s easy to access, we are passing trade for those giving us the information.

If what you are doing matters, to you and others, make sure there’s a little voice inside you that is protecting you by considering where the information you are about to rely on has its source.

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