Column: Help from machines is a hindrance

FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2012 file photo, the snow-covered peak of Mount Washington soars above fall foliage, as viewed from Jefferson, N.H. A growing list of environmental and recreational groups are coming out against plans to build an upscale hotel a mile from the mountain's summit. They argue the hotel will hurt the viewing experience and damage the fragile Alpine environment. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

FILE - In this Oct. 11, 2012 file photo, the snow-covered peak of Mount Washington soars above fall foliage, as viewed from Jefferson, N.H. A growing list of environmental and recreational groups are coming out against plans to build an upscale hotel a mile from the mountain's summit. They argue the hotel will hurt the viewing experience and damage the fragile Alpine environment. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File) ap — Jim Cole

Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson

By STEVE NELSON

For the Valley News

Published: 10-09-2023 10:10 AM

“This car climbed Mt. Washington.” This bumper sticker is commonly seen in New England. As most readers know, there is a winding road to the summit.

The bumper stickers never fail to irritate me, as the “achievement” is remarkably unremarkable. It’s rather like having a CD player with a label reading, “This electronic device played the Brahms Violin Concerto.”

This long-standing pet peeve was rekindled by the explosion (one can wish) of the e-bike phenomenon. Many areas in Colorado are debating the use of e-bikes on mountain bike trails and in wilderness areas. On my local single track trails it is now common to be passed on uphills by rather smug looking riders half my age and half again my weight.

There are legitimate benefits to the e-bike phenomenon, including emission-free commuting and expanded opportunities for the elderly or impaired. I suppose riding an e-bike is a notch above a recliner and a beer — but only a notch.

But I come to bury, not praise.

I admit to being a physical purist. There are certain experiences that should be earned, at least if the “earning” is possible. At the very least, if one chooses ease and convenience over commitment and effort, don’t brag about it, whether Mount Washington or Brahms.

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Most alarming, at least in my community, is the proliferation of e-bikes among young folks. Many riders are careless, helmet-less, and riding far too fast for conditions. I expect a rapid increase in head injuries. I suspect that the serious injury curve is lagging just behind the soaring sales curve.

A segue from e-bikes to AI and ChatGPT should be obvious. Like an e-bike, ChatGPT produces results that are disproportionate to effort. Perhaps the analogy is a bit tortured, but creating cogent prose demands conscious effort resulting in real satisfaction, just as pedaling with your own effort to the top of the single track trails elevates one’s heart rate and spirit.

I worry that in these ways and many others we are denying children the experiences they most need. They can sit on an e-bike to get to school, use a calculator to calculate, write an essay with a few prompts, “paint” a picture on a computer screen, “play” music on a pre-programmed electronic keyboard, create a cinematic masterpiece on an iPhone and go home to a dinner prepared by scanning a QR code.

As an educator I often ranted about the digital representation of life. Such representations are not life, although advances in technology can make one hard to distinguish from the other. The conveniences and efficiencies of technology have benefits, I suppose, but technology can also deprive children (and adults) of the most valuable and meaningful learning experiences — and life experiences.

A central principle of progressive education is learning by doing. It is not merely a philosophical slogan. It is rooted in the most sophisticated understanding of neurobiology and cognition. A mathematical concept is better understood through using all senses. Truly making music is perfect bow speed on a violin string, finding the lip position that turns futile blowing into a glorious tone on a flute or feeling the deep sonorities of a cello in your bones. The feeling of a brush stroke transmits emotion directly to the canvas.

The phrase “no pain, no gain” is trite but true, although perhaps more aptly phrased, “no effort, no gain.” My life and the lives of most people have been immeasurably enriched by striving. (It is a concept that should be untethered from its more toxic companion, achievement.) At age 76, partially impaired and slowed by age, I still feel great satisfaction from summiting a small peak or charging down a pump track on a mountain bike, knowing I earned the gift of gravity by investing effort. The pace and duration are irrelevant. The feeling is undiminished from decades ago.

Years ago, the cardiologist/writer George Sheehan wrote that we are, at the core, simply mammals and that our first responsibility to ourselves is to be good animals. That means running, playing, sucking air deep into our lungs, reaching a destination by dint of your own power and knowing the joy of exhaustion.

I am sufficiently self-aware to know that I may be seen as a strident romanticist. I plead guilty. But I fervently believe that children must be exposed to real things, not their convenient digital or electric doppelgängers. They should pedal bikes, not just sit on them. (And wear helmets!!) They should climb mountains, not ride up in the family car. They should play instruments, finger paint, and bake cookies.

When small humans have real experiences they will prefer them to technologically enhanced imposters. Providing those experiences is our responsibility as parents, grandparents and educators.