Last week I found myself on an airplane waiting to take off.
Everyone was settled in their seats and the flight attendants were running through the safety drill that nobody pays attention to. As the jet taxied up for its spot on the tarmac, I stopped reading my iPad and looked out the window. Rather than look back down, I decided to stay in the world and follow the take-off.
The engines whined up to full power and we were pressed back into our seats as the plane accelerated down the runaway and up into the air. As the ground rapidly fell away, I turned to look at my fellow passengers—and pretty much all of them were, like me a second ago, focused on something else. It was a remarkable moment and left me with a simple question.
Why do people go so rapidly from awe to boredom at the miracles of technology?
The human dream to fly is ancient. It’s so fundamental that it is, literally, inscribed in myth (à la Icarus). By the time of the Renaissance, DaVinci was sketching out machines that almost seemed like they’d get human beings into powered flight. Then, a century ago, we crossed the Rubicon. The Wright Brothers showed flight was possible, and for a while at least, pilots were heroes whose bravery was highlighted in the press as one milestone after another (e.g. first transatlantic flight, first round-the-world flight, etc.) was ticked off.
But eventually, as well all know, airplanes moved from novelties to weapons of war to buses-in-the-sky. What was once a dream became commonplace.
Today we are watching the same dynamic play out when it comes to robots and artificial intelligence. The dream of thinking machines that could walk among us has been a staple of science fiction (and popular culture) for more than a century.
Today we are still in the “shock and awe” phase of robots. The remarkable company BostonDynamics periodically releases videos of its creations carrying boxes around a warehouse or doing somersaults. Each new post becomes an internet sensation. We send the videos to each other exclaim how we live in age of wonders—or at least prepare for the robopocalypse).
But as with air travel, once real robots are ubiquitous in the world, we’ll probably grow used to it pretty quickly. As soon as they’re in the house washing our dishes and nannying our kids, we will, most likely, stop being amazed at all. If recent history is any guide, the journey from wonder to boredom (and even annoyance) will take a few years at most.
Too easily bored
So, what’s at work here? Why do humans become so quickly tuned-out to the remarkable nature of the built world around them? This question is particularly important, because if any of these creations disappeared, we’d suddenly remember just how remarkable they were. (Likewise, we’re likely to get un-bored of robots really quick when they suddenly revolt.)
While there are likely to be more than a few psychology PhD theses on this topic, I think the answer points to a profound failing in the human condition. The thing about technology is it takes us from one set of existences to another. First there are no airplanes and then there are. First there are no artificial intelligences and then they are part of everyone’s daily life. That means the problem is not that we’ve become inured to the wonders of such new technological experiences. Instead, it’s that we become inured to all experience. Technology just reveals for us how deeply this blindness infects us all.
Here’s the thing: We’re on the planet for about 100 years if we are really lucky. Then we die and who knows what happens? Given that inescapable fact, you’d think we might spend more time being amazed at everything—the trees, the birds, the rocks, the sky.
All that beautiful amazing stuff is just here, working pretty well on its own. That should be cause enough for wonder. The miracles of technology are just icing on the cake—but should still evoke awe and astonishment.
But, as new technology demonstrates, we grow quickly bored and quickly blind. Every day we wait for something “new” to wake us from our slumbers.
The good news, however, is just because we’ve grown used to the world (natural or built) doesn’t mean we have to stay that way. Every day, we have the opportunity to take the blinders off and see just how remarkable that tree, that cloud, that iPhone really is. It just takes a tiny shift in attitude and perspective.
You don’t have to spend the whole day wide-eyed and slack-jawed at everything. Just take a few moments here and there—like when your giant multi-ton jetliner is lifting from the ground—and reawaken the most precious of human capacities: wonder.
We all should all seek and cling to those moments. We’d all be better for them.