My hubby and I were chatting the other day about technological change – in that instance, as it relates to truck driving and self reliance. We both grew up in the era before automatic transmissions, idiot lights, power steering, computerized cars and automatic braking systems. He drove hay trucks and operated heavy equipment, we both drove tractors and used a wide variety of ranch and farm equipment. In my professional realm of nursing, I came of age before we had such technology as in-wall suction and oxygen, and monitors and sensors to manage things like intravenous lines or relay data about everything inside the body from the pulse to the pressure inside the skull or heart. And of course, there were no such things as smart phones, laptops, virtual reality or a lot of the other highly technical systems and products many people now take for granted. Hubby and I see that as an advantage. Here’s why.
Humans can certainly learn from books, but many life activities are what we in nursing call psychomotor tasks, meaning the brain and body are both required and must interact to perform the task. Think of riding a bike or driving a car – you have to be able to balance, pedal and steer a bike, and accelerate, brake and steer a car; drive or ride defensively; calculate such issues as distance when braking or accelerating, and follow the rules of the road. Brain and body are both required to perform these operations. Much of the work we do here on the ranch also fits under the heading of psychomotor tasks: plowing land, hauling hay, irrigating, milking the cow, training animals and many more.
Ranching can be hard physical labor, so when technology offers a way to make it easier, people often embrace the new. That’s why humans went from draft horses to tractors, from by-the-eye or survey tools in leveling land to laser-guided systems, or from trucks with heavy metal springs to the newer systems that use air cushions, computer-guided to balance loads. Technology is also advancing on the home front, with such goodies as computer-controlled indoor climates, sensors in toasters and coffee-makers and gosh-knows-what-else, not to mention virtual reality goggles and virtual shopping. Sounds cool, right?
I’m not so sure.
Let me try to explain. After I had been a nurse long enough to get from the novice to expert stage, I considered moving on from medical/surgical nursing to critical care. It’s a pretty normal progression for many nurses as they become more seasoned. After I spent a little time trying out this so-called “more advanced” nursing by working there occasionally, I began to notice that many critical care nurses were dependent on the machines. They had lost the ability to watch the patient and make deductions about what was going on. Worse, some were treating the readings from the technology when the patient looked fine. Over-treatment is at least as risky for patients as under-treatment and introduces the risk of side effects and complications. I wound up staying in med/surg, because I thought it was more challenging to manage multiple patients through the use of my senses, training and intuition. The longer I stayed at it, the better I got. Eventually, I reached the point where I could make a patient assessment by glancing in a room as I walked down the hall (and whenever I did walk down a hall, I was constantly looking in rooms as I passed). On the ranch, I apply these skills to assessing the animals, weather and environment every day when we do chores. Hubby has similar skills when it come to operating machinery – he can pick up on tiny variations in engine noise or performance that many people don’t notice. Either of us can perform certain tasks with smooth skill and efficiency because of long practice (the motor part of the equation).
The point is, we acquired those skills through constant practice and the use of our senses, as our brains and bodies received feedback from the exterior world that was not filtered through anything else. When you’ve spent some time driving on black ice, you have an exquisite sense of how the vehicle feels when it’s just starting to slide, how much brake to apply and which direction to steer in a skid. You don’t have to actively think about it – brain and body work together, to the point that what you’re doing looks like a finely honed reflex (because it is). I spent long hours riding horses bareback when I was younger. Bareback, you can feel the horse in a way that you don’t in a saddle of any kind – it hones your balance and muscle control, and teaches you how subtle weight shifts become commands to the well-trained horse.
Although technology can help make tasks easier, you still need to know enough to know when something’s “off.” Take something as simple as a calculator, which many nurses use to help them calculate drug dosages. You’d darned well better know that 10 cc of a medication is WAY too much when the normal dose is .10 cc, even if the calculator’s actual computation is correct. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people in cashier positions who can’t make change, because they can’t do simple addition and subtraction in their heads. In too many cases, technology takes the thinking away from you. Always depending on a laser to level a field means you’re going to find it impossible to “eyeball” it when the laser’s not working, as hubby used to do when operating heavy equipment. He could move dirt into the correct grade within an inch or less of what was required, without any equipment other than what he was born with.
The other issue with technology is that someone else decides how much and what kind of information you’re going to have and how much control you have over a certain situation. Take idiot lights for oil – I want to know what the oil pressure actually is, and whether it’s dropping, and how much, how fast; the same for engine temperature. When it comes to shopping, I don’t want someone to show me options of something to buy based on what they think are my likes and dislikes (not to mention their desire to push certain things irrespective of my likes and dislikes). Nor do I want technology monitoring what I do or storing up information about me. It’s not that I want to do something illegal, it’s because what I do is nobody else’s business unless it harms them. As Will Rogers was fond of saying: “Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” And spare me the garbage about how increased surveillance is necessary to protect us from terrorists, drug dealers and criminals. Frankly, I think we need protection from overzealous politicians, petty bureaucrats and some law enforcement officials a lot more.
What happens when technology goes wrong? If you’ve had to learn how to do things by depending on your own body and brain, you are a lot more likely to be able to get yourself out of a difficult or dangerous situation than if you always sit back and let the machines do it. Athletes practice religiously because they know even tiny changes in movement patterns, gait or speed can mean the difference between winning and losing, or between staying healthy and a career-ending injury. If the technology goes on the blink, and you’ve always depended on it, you don’t have the mental or physical experience to get yourself out of trouble. If you assume that the machines are feeding you accurate information or working properly (which they very well may not be), and you make decisions based on that assumption, you or the patient could be toast. Let’s say the fancy monitors say your patient’s blood pressure, pulse and such are all normal. But you look at the patient, and he’s pale and sweaty, short of breath and kind of staring around as if he’s not sure where he is. I don’t care what the machine says, this guy is in trouble, and you need to take immediate action.
Bottom line for me: while I take advantage of technology in some forms, I still favor relying on my learned skills whenever possible, and I’m doing my best to teach them to the grandkids.
[I must confess to a private chuckle about this post. My internet connection was down for five days, was supposedly fixed with a new modem and promptly went back down two hours later. Daughter’s internet connection at her house a few hundred feet away is just fine, which is the only reason I’ve been able to post this. Given that we were in the middle of a series of rather severe storms (snow, flood warnings and high winds), not being able to log on to NOAA was a bit of a nuisance…]