The 23rd Annual Great American Think-Off was held on Saturday, June 13th, 2015 at the James Mann Center for the Performing Arts in New York Mills. The first round featured David Lapakko and David Eckel both arguing for the side of “Technology Frees Us”. Lapakko prevailed over Eckel to advance to the final round. In the second round, Paul Terry and Marsh Muirhead each argued their points for the side of “Technology Traps Us”. Terry garnered more votes than Muirhead to remain in the debate. In the final round, the audience voted that “Technology Frees Us” and crowned David Lapakko the 2015 Greatest American Thinker. What follows is the full text of the four winning essays.
I would explain to her that, appearances to the contrary, “Computer” and his technological pack mates are immensely freeing because they radically expand my choices and capabilities. Were they traps, they would limit my choices.
It’s not simply that I can do things faster and better with technology than I could barehanded; I can do things otherwise impossible. Flying comes to mind. Not just sitting inside a pressurized tube being flown, but flying as it was meant to be, touching the open air while soaring 2000 feet over Kitty Hawk in an ultralight.
Technology is so pervasive, so intertwined with human existence that we can scarcely imagine life without it. Consider that without fire we probably wouldn’t have made it to caveman. We would still be in the trees, trapped by the limitations of our bodies, naked and virtually defenseless against Nature, lacking the tools our minds have thought to devise and have guided our hands to craft.
But could technology also be entrapping, limiting our choices to such a degree (and in ways we might not realize) that the undeniable freedom that human ingenuity has unlocked is somehow outweighed?
We do seem habituated, if not addicted, to technology. We tend to reach for a calculator when confronted with simple multiplication, forgetting to figure in our heads. We drive short distances rather than walking. Instead of reading or discussing philosophy, we turn on TV and value entertainment over information, as a child might choose ice cream and candy over fruit and vegetables. What happens when all the stores that offer healthy food go out of business for lack of customers, and only stores that stock sugar and junk food remain? Aren’t we trapped because our options in nutrition (mental as well as physical) are curtailed? True, but was it technology that did it, or the preponderance of our own poor choices?
As an unabashed advocate for technology, what concerns me nevertheless is that it might make things too easy for our species, still learning to live up to our self-appointed name, “man the wise”. When confronted with a task that is difficult or that requires considerable effort we are more likely to question in advance whether the result of that effort would be worthwhile, and perhaps to choose not to do it. Other people (or authorities) might think twice before asking us to do something expensive of time, effort and resources, knowing the more trouble they impose the more we might ask of them in return. Enter technology: by making tasks easier and less expensive to do, technology may increase our load of tasks that have minimal value, leading us to fritter life away in their mindless execution.
Technology can also encourage us to think short term, perhaps choosing to burn a gallon of gasoline to get a gallon of milk that we would already have if we had simply made a grocery list. It can make the immediate cost of a gallon of gasoline so low that if we fail to take into account all of the indirect costs (such as environmental wear and tear, that if included would almost certainly curtail casual use), we may create an insurmountable problem for future generations.
But are these the failure and fault of technology, or of ourselves?
As long as we have freedom of choice, it is up to us to make wise and reasoned ones. Blaming technology for our own poor decisions, even as we eagerly accept the benefits and possibilities that technology bestows, seems disingenuous. It is not technology’s responsibility to make sure that each of the vast array of choices it makes possible is in our best interests. When we surrender that responsibility, whether to technology or another force, we will have trapped ourselves.
Yet my dog has a point. We should be out embracing this glorious day, walking the woods and taking in its simple pleasures, a choice that, thankfully, I am free to make. Turning off “Computer”, I turn to beckon her. She’s already at the door.
Imagine a world without technology.
Well, if you lived in the 1800s, you really wouldn’t have to. When it came time to plow the fields, you’d hook your rig up to a horse and spend an entire week doing what a motorized tractor can now do in one day or less.
When mealtime approached, you’d trek to the garden and find what was available; if you didn’t plant it, or it wasn’t in season, you were stuck with what you had. Then you might need to kill, pluck, and eviscerate the chicken (yuck), split some logs, gather the wood, and put it in the stove. It was all a real production. But today, a quick trip to the local supermarket, along with a microwave oven, might put dinner on the table in under thirty minutes.
If you wanted to travel, you’d hitch up the wagon and spend two or three days doing what a Ford Focus or Honda Civic can do in two or three hours. If you yearned to communicate with a faraway friend, you’d painstakingly write a letter by hand and hope the Pony Express or a train could get it there eventually. Now you can do the same thing instantaneously in a couple of clicks. If that is not freeing, what is?
Of course, technology is not without its perils. Critics claim adopting new technologies is a sort of Faustian bargain—a deal with the devil. In order to have that tractor, you must slave away to pay for it, and you must be prepared for it to break down, and to fix it. Some microwave users can’t cook anything that isn’t “prepared”—at best, such people are good at “warming.” As for computers, I think we all realize we can become a slave to our screens; for some, a smart phone is the electronic equivalent of heroin.
Still, with respect to technology and freedom, we have to consider what freedom actually is. I would define it quite simply: to have options. If you ask rich people about the main virtue of money, they will often tell you it’s not that they can buy more things, but that financial wealth gives them more choices. So too with technology. One can become “trapped” by it, but technology opens up so many more possibilities that it can only be considered freeing compared to the alternative.
We should be careful not to over-romanticize the Good Old Days. A couple years ago our dishwasher died, and I almost looked forward to the visceral experience of independence from technology, imagining the warm suds flowing over my hands as I scrubbed each plate and utensil clean. Trust me on this: that warm glow faded rather quickly; I realized how comforting it is to let a machine do the work—especially when you have a half dozen guests! Or, as a student back in the archaic Typewriter Era, I often used scissors and tape to rearrange a paper. Younger folks do not fully appreciate why the pull-down menus on computers include the commands called “cut” and “paste.” And they certainly do not appreciate that there was a time—hard as it may be to believe–that if you had even one small error on a page, you felt duty-bound to re-type the entire sheet to make it look right. That is my definition of feeling trapped.
Indeed, it is the lack of technology that can trap us far more than its presence. In the old days, people weren’t easily able to see the world. Their friends were commonly within spitting distance, and they spent an inordinate amount of time simply taking care of the basics in life. On the other hand, when I graduated from college, I realized that I had never been out of the U.S. and promptly booked a flight to Spain. I spent seven weeks wandering around Europe with a Eurail pass and a frame backpack. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life!
Even the Great American Think-Off has technology to thank. Essays can be submitted quickly on-line. Finalists can come from Tennessee or North Carolina and be back home the next day. And hundreds of people can make their way to New York Mills almost effortlessly to witness the event. Yes, technology can be incredibly aggravating, but compared to the alternative, it is what enables us to do more of what we dream to do, and with immensely greater ease. That’s what I would call freedom.
Recently, the checkout person at the office supply store declared that my check could not be accepted. She explained that their new scanning service detected a problem. I pointed out the thousands of dollars I spent there, my perfect credit rating, the business I had maintained since before she was born. No dice. I chatted with the manager. He suggested I call the credit verification service. I called. India. A nice lady, but she could not reveal the threat their algorithm had discovered lurking in my data. I returned to the store, told the manager I’d take my business elsewhere, and asked him if he was concerned that there might be something wrong with their screening service. Company policy, he said, and sent me on my way.
I once spent two days trying to restore my long distance phone service that had been silenced due to a “problem” with my account. After pressing a dozen numbers, a live person came on the line, noted that my account was fine, but that service could not be restored due a problem with my account. She could not ascertain the problem, and asked if there was anything else she could help me with. I can’t repeat the conversations that followed.
You could tell such stories – we could go on and on, these just the more trivial and annoying tales that demonstrate the ways we are trapped, scammed, and otherwise dehumanized by technology, the engine of rampant consumerism, serving the interests of those for whom profit, influence, and control is the goal without regard to the greater good of the earth or its people. Although technology has made stunning advances in information availability, transfer, and storage, it has produced an almost hallucinatory barrage of marketing and advertising. The latest iPhone release draws another line around the block at the Apple store.
Our personal devices are addictive, distracting, dangerous and remove us from the practical and beautiful world around us. More than half the serious accidents involving teen drivers are the result of distraction by personal device. I recently observed a table of spring formal teens at a restaurant—all of them looking into their screens while they waited for their food. Of what will memories be made in their future? Our devices remove us from the natural world, dull our animal skills of sensing distance, weather, spatial relationships, hearing the birds. We no longer need to spell, park a car, read a map, or estimate the temperature by sticking our head out the window.
Social media creates relationships more virtual than real, one social observer calling Facebook the “alter of loneliness.” And whether for personal or business activity, our connectedness to everything has facilitated corporate espionage, focused marketing, hacking, predatory sexting. Our devices can report our every movement to employers, insurance companies, and the government.
Technology races ahead of our ability to manage the problems it creates, especially when political and economic motives drive industry and commerce.
The latest drug—despite an impressive list of side-effects—has everyone calling the doctor to ask if this one is “right for them.” Drugs have eradicated or ameliorated the worst and most widespread diseases, but profits dictate availability; the rarer diseases remain neglected in research. The rush to sell, and the public’s demands, have led to side effects, birth defects, addiction and products to combat deficient eyelashes, less than full lips, impotence in the elderly, and compulsive gambling. Wanting to live comfortably, beautifully, and forever comes at great cost. Recall the disaster of the drug Thalidomide in the 50s: thousands of still births, thousands of severely deformed infants, the collusion of government and drug companies engaged in a cover-up revealed later.
Examples from industry are legion—names and places recalling the horrors: Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, Love Canal, Bhopal, India, the Erin Brockovich crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric, the Minamata mercury poisoning of thousands in Japan, the near extinction of the bald eagle due to the use of DDT. Surely fracking with its own surprises will make this list. And there is no better example than the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, launching an arms race that continues to the present hour.
Since discovering fire and inventing the wheel, we have sought a hotter fire, a rounder wheel, burning and running over ourselves again and again, no happier, no more secure than when chased by the tiger, freezing in our cave.
I stopped dead in my tracks. After hours of solo trekking I came over a crest and was surprised to see a lake. I must have crossed into Mozambique! You do NOT hike off trail near this border. Why? Landmines! At that time, 500 minefields and 100,000 IED’s had yet to be cleared. I shouted at myself: “You are SUCH an idiot!”
A trap is something you fall into and don’t know how to get out of. I was all in. The deadly technology surrounding me was entirely benign, that is, unless I took a misstep. Choose the wrong direction and I’d be missing an arm or leg like so many of the locals I saw days before in the bombed out town of Beira.
Being surrounded by life altering technology has never seemed as scary as it did that day, but trekking into today’s semi-conductive landscapes can detonate trillions of treacherous traps every nano-second. Frazzled parents checking emails miss their kids’ soccer goals and ballet leaps. Boom! Stanford researchers showed girls multi-tasking online have fewer and poorer quality friendships. UCLA showed our texting kids are losing their ability to interpret facial emotions. Boom! 185 million active gamers in the US are averaging 22 hours a week in virtual worlds of wars and grand theft they find more rewarding than reality. Equivalent time investments could produce fluency in any language or a virtuoso performance on any instrument. Instead of the promise that tech would lead to a culture of leisure for the working class, it has produced a cortisol induced Karosi, the Japanese word for death by overwork. Boom, boom, boom!
Defenders of technology point to how twitter feeds spawned the Arab Uprising but they ignore sociologists who study how the speed behind digital activism only creates weak ties. Sustainable movements that free us depend on the hard work of personal connectivity. Slow organizing, the kind that builds relationships, is what it takes to gain consensus and, as one sociologist described it, to learn how to “navigate the minefields of political danger.”
Tech freedom proponents say that computers can improve behaviors such as reducing speeding by monitoring drivers. But this is the same Orwellian web that enables cyber bullying, hacking, stalking and sex trafficking. Cyborgs watch what we watch and log what we buy with the single aim of luring us into wanting more.
As a Delta “million-miler” I travel most weeks with an unhappy herd in an ozone depleting tube we can no longer do business without. “Flight attendants; doors for departure, cross check and all call.” With that, we are lawfully sealed in. Just a decade ago it was common to greet the person you would rub shoulders with and occasionally even chat. Today, faces are frozen to screens and ears are guarded by “Quiet Comfort” headphones.
The day I read this year’s “Think Off” question, I decided to rattle the trap. I was traveling First Class where we gorge on HDMI portion sizes twice that of those cattle back in coach. When the attendant declared it was time to switch devices to airplane mode, I turned and said hello. Time flew by as I learned my seat mate was a part of the health care team that operated on Governor George Wallace for five hours after an assassin shot him five times. They could not dislodge the bullet in Wallace’s spine which left the then front running Presidential nominee paralyzed for life. My seat mate seemed pleased for the chance to explain how this likely altered the course of segregation politics.
Some trappings of tech are not hard to escape but few try. Why? We’re losing track of the way back and, more urgently, we’re not asking if the way ahead is strewn with even more beguiling booms per step. Once we are literally wearing our computers, a makeover already in full swing, the daily influence of computers becomes as subtle as it is powerful. Some call this deceit “invisibilia.” Computers that schedule us and synthesize our information will increasingly change our capacity to think. BIG boom!
That day on the Mozambique border, I decided to retrace my steps. I tread breathlessly for miles as if over burning coals. Could we escape our dependence on the grid? Not according to geo-scientists who have run simulations of prolonged power outages in cities. It always ends in anarchy, then starvation, except for fully armed, smartly stocked survivalists or for throw back farmers who wall off their land. Technology is a trap. We’re all in. Log off? Boom!
America’s Greatest Thinker named for 2015
The Cultural Center in New York Mills is pleased to announce that David Lapakko of Richfield, MN, asserting that Technology Frees Us, was voted America’s Greatest Thinker on Saturday, June 13th by a crowd of 300 at the New York Mills James Mann Performing Arts Center. David prevailed over Paul Terry, who argued that Technology Traps Us.
True to our Cultural Center logo, Saturday began with a tractor pulling the four finalists and our moderator down Centennial 84 Drive in New York Mills, each looking for local support for their side of the debate, holding signs stating “FREES” or “TRAPS”. Moderator John Forde struck a “Thinker” pose, and local retired farmers Bill & Delaine Meyer drove their 66-year-old John Deere tractor, sitting side by side on the single driver’s seat.
The debate began at 7:00 p.m. and opened with David Eckel and David Lapakko each presenting their argument for the stance that “Technology Frees Us”. While both argued that technology gives us more choices and is thereby freeing, Eckel focused his arguments on the fact that people have free will to avoid the potential traps of technology, stating, “Blaming technology for our own poor decisions, even as we eagerly accept the benefits and possibilities that technology bestows, seems disingenuous. It is not technology’s responsibility to make sure that each of the vast array of choices it makes possible is in our best interests.” However, Lapakko prevailed, with a focus on the modern conveniences provided by technology, and looking beyond our computers and smart phones.
The second round of the debate featured Marsh Muirhead and Paul Terry, each arguing on the side of “Technology Traps Us”. Muirhead focused his arguments on the many ways technology harms us and our environment. He was defeated by Terry, who focused his debate on the dangers of technology including a loss of personal interaction and deep relationships, addiction, and robotics and artificial intelligence, reminding the audience that, “Cyborgs watch what we watch and log what we buy with the single aim of luring us into wanting more.”
In the final round, the questions and discussion seemed to center around computers and smart phones as technology, but Lappako, an Associate Professor of Communications Studies at Augsburg College, won the support of the audience with continuous reminders that technology is much more than computers, and many of those technological advancements in the fields of medicine, transportation, electricity, and more do indeed free us to live more full and rewarding lives.
All four finalists presented relevant and interesting points in the lively debate and the audience votes showed support of all arguments.
Each of the four contestants received $500 in prize money, an expense-paid trip to New York Mills, and bronze, silver, or gold medals. When asked what keeps them coming back, all four agreed they enjoy the opportunity to engage in truly civil debate, as well as a stay in the charming town of New York Mills. Their essays were chosen by blind selection out of hundreds of essays that were received by entrants from occupations as diverse as a carpenter, train operator, pizza artist, beer and ice delivery truck driver, community organizer, retail sales clerk, and valet, and came from as far away as Japan, Canada, and Nigeria.
Thanks to all who attended the event and made it another great year of philosophical debate in rural Minnesota.
The Cultural Center’s Great American Think-Off committee is pleased to announce that the four finalists for the 23rd annual debate have been selected to answer this year’s question, “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?”. Arguing that technology traps us will be Paul Terry and Marsh Muirhead, while David Eckel and David Lapakko will argue that technology frees us. This year’s twist? All four debaters have been finalists in the past. This unprecedented ‘Battle of Champions’ is sure to incite an exceptionally rousing debate at this year’s Think-Off.
The great debate will take place on Saturday, June 13th, 2015 at 7:00pm at the James Mann Center for the Performing Arts at the New York Mills School, with a reception immediately following at the Cultural Center. Click here to purchase your tickets now!
Arguing that technology frees us will be David Eckel, a writer and philosopher trying hard to retire from IT consulting. An MIT graduate in Management Science, Dave’s checkered past includes developing a non-reversing mirror as well as working for start-ups in the plastics and telecom sectors before founding a software company whose diverse clients ranged from telephone and utility companies to an oil field services firm and an antique mall. Close to home he’s the neighborhood’s computer fix-it guy and a junior golf instructor. This varied background has contributed to an intuitive style of problem solving that he hopes now to apply more to matters of philosophy and to completing the book he’s been writing since 1984. Originally from Houston, Dave found his way to Clayton, NC where he lives with wife Sandy and their two rescue dogs, Heart and Soul. Previously, Dave participated in the Think-Off in 2010, when he argued that the wealthy did not have an obligation to help the poor (and won the title of America’s Greatest Thinker), and again in 2013 when he opined that sticking to principle was more ethical than being willing to compromise.
Also arguing on the side of technology as freeing us is David Lapakko, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where he teaches courses in Argumentation, Persuasion, Intercultural Communication, Organizational Communication, Research Methods, and Public Speaking. He also teaches a communication ethics course in Augsburg’s Master of Arts in Leadership program. David received a B.A. from Macalester College in St. Paul, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in speech-communication from the University of Minnesota. His textbook, Argumentation: Critical Thinking in Action (iUniverse, 2014) is now in its 3rd edition. David’s hobbies include distance running (six marathons and 30 half-marathons) and blogging (under the moniker “Contentious Introvert”). He and his wonderful wife Helen are blessed to have two children (Tony and Jamee), each of whom has an amazing grandkid (Vincent, age 1, and Tegan, age 2)! David was a Think-Off finalist in 2013 when he argued that being willing to compromise was more ethical than sticking to principle.
On the side of arguing that technology traps us is Marsh Muirhead, a poet and writer, dentist and flight instructor, living on the banks of the Mississippi River near Bemidji, Minnesota with his retriever, Scout. His poems and stories have been published in The Southeast Review, New Mexico Poetry Review, Minnetonka Review, Rattle, Modern Haiku and elsewhere. He is a contributor to the Canadian poetry website How Pedestrian and is the author of Key West Explained – a guide for the traveler. Marsh won the 2011 Think-Off, arguing that yes, poetry matters. He was also a finalist in 2012 when he argued that humankind was inherently good.
Also arguing that technology traps us is Paul Terry, chief science officer at Staywell in Saint Paul, MN, where he leads client support, program evaluation, research and industry leadership and ensures high-quality program development and delivery. Paul holds a doctorate in health education from the University of Minnesota, a master’s degree in health science from Minnesota State University at Mankato, Minn., and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and psychology from St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is also a Senior Fulbright Scholar, co-founder of Shape Zimbabwe (an organization committed to HIV prevention in Africa), past president of the Minnesota Public Health Association, editor of the American Journal of Health Promotion, and is principal investigator of a three-year, CDC-funded study on the effectiveness of different models of worksite health promotion. Paul strives for a life of meaning to fuel both heart and soul. His “heart work” includes time for family and adventures, serving as a health coach, windsurfing, skiing and disc golfing. His “soul work” embraces volunteerism, including missions in Africa, reading and exploring nature. Paul earned the title “America’s Greatest Thinker” in 2013 when he argued that being willing to compromise was more ethical than sticking to principle. He returned in 2014 asserting that fear motivates us more than love.