Tech-Derived Self-Esteem

Posted: April 27, 2011 in Blogosphere, Consumerism, Education, Idle Nonsense, Nomenclature, Technophilia

We’re all familiar with the term false modesty, where someone feigns humility but really has none. Usually the faker knows he’s faking, but not always. (The best liars lie best to themselves.) Is there a mirror term for people who believe they possess skills not really acquired? One might suggest fool or idiot but those are too generic. I ask because there is a growing body of tech that simulates or replicates some skill, leading users to believe (falsely) they actually have skills. I doubt someone would attempt to fly a plane solely on the strength of time spent in a flight simulator, much less a flight simulator video game. The risks are obviously too high. However, I can well imagine someone taking that risk with an automobile, confident that time riding as a passenger or driving a virtual car in a video game substitutes adequately for actual instruction and development of the driver’s feel for the vehicle in motion. No doubt they would be right some nontrivial percentage of the time.

If simulators were once intended to be instructional aids, they crossed over at some point into being games and ends in themselves, meaning that skill development would no longer be required to do a job. This is part of a larger trend toward a fully engineered environment where the knowledge, expertise, and attention formerly required to perform tasks are now mediated by tech that does some large portion of the work for you (presumably to free up your mind for other things but more likely just turning your head into sawdust). Cooking from scratch is a skill; cooking from a box recipe is false, not even cooking a lot of the time, just heating, like “baking” a frozen pizza. Another example is GarageBand for the iPad, software that simulates playing the guitar. The user/player doesn’t have to own an instrument or know beans about music to record tracks and imagine him- or herself an accomplished musician. No need to put in the time to acquire actual skills, much less good taste. The disconnect between simulation and skill has been repeated many times over (or so I hear) by players of Guitar Hero and later Rock Band, who get good at the game and then say to each other “Hey, let’s form a band!” only to discover that playing instruments is a far sight different from playing their game counterparts. But hey, if you can trick yourself into believing you have skills you don’t, well, what’s the harm?

Modern life is replete with tech assists that obviate skill. Calculators and spell checkers are two obvious, mundane examples. (Spell checkers haven’t yet solved the homophone problem.) Grammar checkers and writing templates work even less well. But don’t tell the attorneys, whose writing is often full of flaws. They are required to take numerous writing classes over the course of their law school careers, and they typically graduate with the inflated sense that they’re highly competent writers. Fine, let ’em believe whatever they want. But any idiot can see that repeated many times over across all disciplines: students who rely too easily on tech to simulate skills they will undoubtedly need but never really develop who then find themselves later in life in situations for which they’re wholly unprepared. If they cheated their way through school, they might know when they’re out of their depth. But as the products of esteem-building exercises that now pass as education, they often don’t realize when they’re lost at sea, or if they do, they don’t know why. It’s not simple overconfidence; it’s false hubris or some better term I haven’t yet discovered.

Update: I didn’t search for it, but I knew it was out there. Only one day after posting the blog above I learned of MasterWriter, a software program that makes anyone into helps anyone imagine themselves a poet, lyricist, or novelist. This is the blurb accompanying the software:

Masterwriter is simply the most powerful collection of writing tools ever assembled in one program. Whether you’re writing a song, a poem, or a novel, MasterWriter will unlock all the English language has to offer, to help you express yourself in a more unique and meaningful way.

I don’t doubt that writers can use the software advantageously, much like one would use a dictionary or thesaurus, but the launching point for being a writer is having something worthwhile to say and then crafting one’s ideas. It’s not a matter of mere word choice, and software does not substitute for ideas. Ugh.

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