The restaurant listed a grilled chicken salad on its entrée menu. I was craving a large green salad (exactly the same thing as the grilled chicken salad, but without the chicken). I asked the 20-something waitress if the chef could make the simple green salad instead. She said that she would have to find out, but she doubted it. "You have the lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers?" I asked. She nodded. "You have the bowl?" She nodded again. She then informed me that there was no button on the computer with the information I requested, and therefore I could not have the salad. She said however, that I could pay for the grilled chicken salad and pick off the chicken, but that was the best the computer would allow. "So the computer will allow me to pay $18.95 for a simple green salad?" I inquired, keeping my voice calm. "Which, by the way, would be the same price as if I had the full meal. And then I will have the added pleasure of picking off the chicken?" "Precisely," she said smiling, and moving away from the table. "Let me know what you decide," she called back with an odd lilt of cheer.
The monkey has locked the scientist in the cage and we are behaving as if all is well. Although we humans create computers, we have forgotten that these machines are our tools -- and not the other way around. Do we need to create a program that will remind the computer who's boss?
What happened to our ability to make a decision? What happened to self-reliance? Emerson wrote his famous essay on self-reliance in 1841. It may have been over 150 years ago, but all these years later, it applies even more starkly. He wrote,
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. A creator is essentially someone who doubts the alleged wisdom of the status quo and who has the courage to think matters through for himself
So where did we take a wrong turn? How did we become a society of conformists, blindly accepting the information provided by a ghost inside a machine? When did we agree to turn our authority over to the computer, to determine what we can and cannot do, and most importantly, what we actually want? As my 9-year-old often asks, "Who made you the boss of me?"
Relinquishing our authority is turning us into a nation of sloths, proud of the opportunity to do nothing. We have created a Hummer but lost the use of our legs. We are disabled by the softness of our chairs, and disappearing into the easiness that we worked so hard to create. We have made ourselves so comfortable as to no longer be able to actually get up. No longer checking into our own body temperature, we ask the computer for the date when we are allowed to turn on the air conditioner. The computer -- rather than our experience -- now dictates what is so.
To be self-reliant is to know and trust that we have the answers for ourselves, that our own intuition and intelligence is the source of our greatness, and that we can be trusted to guide our own destiny. Thinking out of the box (pun intended) may not be the path of ease, but the path of ease is the path of extinction. If we humans do not want to become obsolete, we must question our willingness to turn our lives over to the computer, to let this finite box stand in for our infinite wisdom.
It is time to reclaim our own authority, to demand that we be the ones deciding what is possible. I (and probably a bunch of chickens too) am not okay with a computer deciding whether or not I can have a chicken salad without the chicken.
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