I recently learned that calls prompting wilderness search and rescue missions in the United States have been rapidly increasing over the last 3 years. For years, these types of operations had been initiated when a hiker did not show up or report in by a given time. Now they’re on the upswing thanks to the prevalence of smart phones and expanding cell phone coverage. You see, hikers are now calling for help themselves for things like losing a trail and being lost or getting caught a considerable distance away from civilization without having any food. According to an editorial in Red Bulletin by author Jeff Wise, this is a mixed blessing for search teams. On one hand, they can initiate more successful searches much faster. On the other, smartphones encourage people to toss out conventional preparations like studying a map, packing extra food, water, and first aid supplies, or learning about the local wildlife and vegetation.
Wise calls this phenomenon of increasing reliance on technology, mental outsourcing, and he argues that it’s making human beings dumber. The concept of mental outsourcing makes a lot of sense actually; human beings stop using their brains to carry out traditional tasks and delegate them to easier-to-use technology. The problem with this for many people is that they don’t replace the delegated task with something as equally stimulating. There’s a common expression among workout junkies like myself that says “the weakest muscle in your body is the one you never use.” I suspect the same holds true for the human brain. If you never use your brain, it naturally weakens, or in this case, gets dumber.
Personally, I leave my phone in my car whenever I go hiking or backpacking. I don’t want to disrupt my time to escape from modern society and clear my head. There are some people who bring electronics with them on trips like that, but my thinking is that one day they might not have the chance to get away from technology so why not take advantage of it while you still can? I suppose it’s a personal choice, but I digress. There are times where I’ve been guilty of mental outsourcing myself.
As a single guy working a job with pretty standard hours, I have a lot of time outside of my responsibilities to do whatever I feel like doing. That type of freedom is great and I absolutely love it, but it’s also a recipe for boredom. I find it very easy to treat that boredom by blowing an hour here or there messing around with an app on my Android phone or scanning through streams of content within my social networks. There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending time on these pursuits, but the problem is that they add almost no value to my life. They do little for building character, exercising my cognitive or physical abilities, or generating a sense of satisfaction. They’re merely items of distraction.
Part of me is a little discouraged by how prevalent mental outsourcing is in my life, but I’d rather be conscious of it and work to reduce it than to be completely ignorant of it all together. I’m definitely challenged by Jeff’s article, and if he’s reading this, I want him to know how appreciative I am of him writing it. Hopefully you’ll find the concept to be food for thought (if nothing else). Otherwise let’s keep the discussion going by having you share the things you tend to outsource mentally in the comments section below.