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Technology And Health: Is The Digital World Hurting Us Or Making Things Easier?

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TORONTO - Canadians may be among the world's most prolific Internet users but it seems all that time online hasn't made us a nation of careful spellers.

Many of us often type "facebok" into Google and rather than correcting the obvious mistake, let the search engine fix it. Monitoring Canadians' search habits would reveal that many, many more consistently type in "faceboo," "faebook" and "fcaebook" — but they know Google will get the point.

Others can't be bothered to tap out even eight characters and have learned that entering just "face" or "fb" will get them exactly the link they're seeking.

Is that lazy or efficient? Should we be thanking Google's engineers for saving us a few seconds or lament that technology is dooming us to intellectual laziness?

It seems hardly anyone can remember phone numbers anymore since we starting storing them in our mobile phones.

Outside of schools and some workplaces, the practice of putting pen to paper is becoming increasingly rare. To many, scribbling with a pen feels quaint in today's digital age.

Who needs maps and a sense of direction with GPS technology — which is now nearly ubiquitous on smartphones and tablets — to guide the way?

And now voice recognition software is exploding in efficiency and popularity, raising the prospect that typing could eventually become another skill that's made redundant by convenient, task-relieving technology.

For Matthew Thomas, 33, it was the signing of a birthday card that made him consider just how infrequent old-fashioned manual tasks like handwriting have become in his typical routine.

"I realized how rarely I'm actually ever writing anything by hand and there was like a moment of panic where I felt a little scared because as I was writing I was having a hard time," Thomas said, noting that he felt the need to concentrate more and think about the act of writing compared to the automatic process of typing.

"When you're typing you don't really think, you don't have to think — (and autocorrect) thinks for you. So I was like, 'Wow, I'm really scary now when I don't have Google or spellcheck to help me out."

More than a decade of work has gone into the technology that powers Google's autocorrect abilities, which anticipate what users want to say as they type — even if their spelling is way off base.

Google would be a great judge of whether our spelling abilities have deteriorated with the advent of autocorrect tools but Mark Paskin, a senior staff software engineer, said the company hasn't studied those kinds of changes.

But there are clear hints that users have grown lazier with their typing, knowing Google will back them up.

Much like the "face" and "fb" searches, the most popular queries entered into Google are one-word entries that produce an easy link to a website. For example, the most common search in Canada over the past nine years is Facebook, followed by Youtube. The fourth most popular of all searches? You, which for most users would produce a link to YouTube.

"If the user is doing it intentionally and it gets them to what they want then from (our perspective) that's a fine query because that's what we're trying to do, get the users what they want," Paskin said.

There's no doubt that today's technology is radically altering our day-to-day life and how we function and think, said Martin Hand, an associate professor at Queen's University.

"I would never think of it in terms of, 'Is it good or bad? Is it helping or hurting' or something like that ... but it's almost impossible to achieve anything without some engagement with some software," Hand said.

"There's something slightly different with the technologies and media we're currently using in that they've become completely infrastructural, ambient, unavoidable, they're more like electricity than television, such that it's very difficult to actually engage in any tasks without negotiating technology in one form or another."

While old skills are no doubt fading away, technology is leading to the creation of new skills, which come with a new set of expectations, he added.

"Sometimes there's a bemoaning that (students) don't know how to write anymore or they can't do handwriting, but they're expected to do all sorts of other things. In a sense it makes things easier but it doesn't make life easier, it changes these other things you've got to be able to do," he said.

"There's a co-evolution of technology and ways of doing things and the expectations that come along with. There are new skills you're required to have."

Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil agrees that the eventual loss of time-tested skills isn't a crisis for our species and represents part of our evolution.

"We are already a biological non-biological civilization that's augmented by the tools we created," said Kurzweil.

"There was controversy when I went to college about these new mobile devices you could carry around that would calculate arithmetic. There was controversy that kids wouldn't learn how to do arithmetic — and probably kids' arithmetic skills have fallen off. But they've put that effort now into better things, actually learning how to solve problems and create new knowledge.

"Yes, we've become dependent on technology and it's not going away."

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