In this world of rapidly changing technology, sometimes we find the old tools work just fine. They may be slower, but they do the same work and they have a lot of advantages, too. My thoughts went off in this direction the other day when I saw a photo of a very recent Russian military training exercise. In it, a crewmember aboard a TU-160 supersonic bomber was doing calculations using a slide rule. Most young people today have never held a slide rule, let alone have any idea how to use one, and yet, there it was.
I have two slide rules on a shelf in my office directly behind me as I write this as well as an E6-B9 computer which is a combination linear and circular slide rule used by pilots for a multitude of in-flight calculations. While never an expert in their use, my skills have long ago atrophied to the point where I can only remember a few basic operations, but the slide rules can sit for years and their batteries never run down, since they have none, and they can withstand an EMP from a nuclear burst, which is likely a reason the Russian air crews still practice using them. Above all, however, is the beauty of what they do, using a series of logarithmic scales, you can do all sorts of math operations much faster than with manual calculations. They’re an amazing invention.
In the movie, Apollo 13, scientists and engineers in Houston were shown feverishly calculating on their slide rules to save the astronauts after an explosion on board made conserving electrical power paramount in order to return safely to earth. They succeeded, too. Not bad for what is now called an “obsolete” tool.
Slide rules used to be everywhere, I remember a very large one, probably 4 or 5 feet long, hanging on the wall over the blackboard in high school math class. Slide rule type calculators were used for everything. Back in the 1960s, Hot Rod magazine used to give away a power and speed calculator with a paid subscription, it was a cardboard slide rule with all sorts of calculations for horsepower, gear ratios, wheel diameter and similar values and it was pretty neat, unfortunately, mine is long gone, but you could find similar slide rules from lots of companies for a wide variety of applications. Many can still be found on eBay. I love those things.
Powerful New Tools – Weak Minds?
Since the ascendence of computers and smartphones, our over reliance on the latest technology eventually results in the diminished capacity to do the work any other way and skills that used to be assumed of everyone fall by the wayside. Without electric power and charged batteries, I wonder how many could find their way very far from home without GPS. Those paper maps every gas station used to have, were great, a quick glance and you could see the general direction necessary and if you could read the road signs, you were set. Do you still use the clear pocket on top of your tank bag for a map? Today, “In one quarter mile, turn right,” is what everyone hears and their brain is simply along for the ride.
Reading books which requires an extended period of concentration is vanishing as a method of learning and the minds of many can no longer focus after experiencing the Internet’s invitation to jump from link to link. Books? The frequently seen “tl;dr” (too long didn’t read) is inserted everywhere before someone nevertheless comments on what the book they didn’t read supposedly said. Think about that. Spelling, which improves if you read because you encounter so many words, has become a lost art.
Instead of artificial intelligence, how about human intelligence?
Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows, addressing many of these concerns said the seductions of technology are hard to resist, and they certainly are, but as we turn the page to a new year, perhaps we could make an effort to revive in ourselves the skills we formerly had, turning off the GPS and using a map, reading a book or two and mastering a few old non-computer-controlled tools. You might be surprised at how satisfying it is to use your brain instead of letting the computer do all of the work. It’s what our minds were meant to do and your brain will thank you for it.