Our hands now spend little time making or growing things, and a lot of time pressing keys and touching screens. We are almost literally losing our hands to the grip of machines. We should worry about this because manual skills are really not just about hands; they are about the way our brains and hands work and interact. When I learn to plant potatoes, fix a broken chair, or replace a roof tile, I am not just learning intellectually like we learn from books and screens how to space the tubers, or the principles of using a lathe. I am involving my whole body and mind in learning a new skill. This takes time and practice. It changes us into active learners, someone who will more easily learn how to make things and grow things. Machines have their place of course. But every time we subordinate our hands or body to a machine, whether it is a computer or a smartphone, we separate our minds a little further from our hands, and we are poorer for it.
We are also losing touch with the physical world at large. Our brains have hardly changed in size or gross structure, but their function has. We have evolved desires for fun, competition, and communication that lead us into ever vaster realms of online information and away from the people right next to us. The landscape gets more surreal by the day, with many people feeling lonely despite having scores of virtual friends who stay virtual, hardly making time and effort to meet and chat with each other face-to-face. We should worry about this, because nothing can substitute the profound pleasures of physical social interactions, warts and all. Our mental wellbeing depends on it.
These thoughts bring up the inevitable question: who are we? Unwittingly, we allow our selves to change as we disconnect from our bodies and other people, and become as much an avartar existing on multiple Web sites and forums as the human being we are, flesh and blood that thrives on acting and interacting with real people, not virtual communities. With the willpower and the immense creativity our species is known for, we can reclaim our humanity.
This essay is a highly edited version of two essays published in John Brockman, What Should We Be Worried About? (Harper Perennial, 2014). The first essay is “Losing Our Hands” by Susan Blackmore, a psychologist and author, and the second essay is by “Losing Touch” by Christine Finn, an archaeologist, journalist and author.