Along with digital watches, electronic calculators were the first digital robots to enjoy widespread ownership – our first robot slaves, if you will. Since then, calculators have been dogged by the complaint that reliance upon these machines for mathematical calculations dulls people's ability to perform mental arithmetic – in cybervirtue terms, that the human-calculator cyborg risks cyber-innumeracy, to draw on John Allen Paulos’ 1988 term. There is some truth to this accusation... but it’s far from the whole story.
In my own life, it is clear what had the greatest negative impact upon my once-proficient skills with mental arithmetic: algebra. By the time I could differentiate and integrate, I could no longer add and subtract with anywhere near the competence I once had. My grappling with so-called ‘higher’ mathematics reduced my competence with basic arithmetic, presumably from little more than erosion of practice. But I note: I never lost my ability to perform arithmetic operations on paper, a fact I have recently verified as my eldest son begins to learn his techniques with numbers. And I note that I seldom turn to a calculator for anything less than four figure operations, trigonometry, or exponentials. But this too is not the whole story, for my work as a game designer almost daily has me playing with mathematical equations, for which I tend to use a spreadsheet as a gigantic programmable calculator.
The truth in the cyber-innumerate accusation is that those who never mastered mental arithmetic feel excused from any obligation to do so since the calculator seemingly removes the need. What’s not clear here is whether what is lost in individual effectiveness is compensated for by what is gained in cyborg competence. It seems to me, for instance, that the biggest culprit here in terms of lost skill is not the calculator but the robot cash register, the intractability of which frequently renders shopkeepers the servant of their robots. The old registers – even and especially their mechanical forebears – were calculators that aided the competences of shopkeepers by streamlining billing. The same can categorically not be claimed of those retail robots that require shopkeepers to scan through pages of buttons to find the exact preset item for sale. These devices also rob staff of the ability to improvise transactions when needed; they are cyber-stultifying to a rather horrific degree when compared to their simpler forebears.
For myself, as a human-calculator cyborg, I have continued to maintain and develop my competences with numbers and equations – indeed, I earn part of my livelihood from it. If I can no longer add and subtract quite as rapidly as when I was younger, I’m inclined to confess that my greater skill with calculators and other mathematics robots (up to the grandmistress of mathbots, MathCAD) is an excellence that computerised calculators have assisted me in developing.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #25, requested by Rowan Fortune (@RT_Editing)