Nadia Eghbal

<-- home

Why Laziness Is a Good Thing

In middle school, I had a math teacher who didn’t let us use calculators. We had to do all our simple arithmetic in our heads. When I got to high school, my freshman year algebra teacher kept his slide rule proudly displayed in its leather case in our classroom. Calculators, my teachers claimed, made us lazy.

In high school, MapQuest became the de facto way to get from point A to point B. I would look up the address beforehand and print out directions before hopping in the car. When I learned how to drive, some of my friends’ cars had a portable GPS. But we were told that the GPS should be used sparingly: only if we were truly lost. GPS, our parents claimed, made us lazy.

Nobody thinks using a GPS or a calculator is a sign of laziness anymore. But there are other things that we think are making us lazy today. Many people are uncomfortable with the concept of on-demand services, especially concierge apps like Magic or Fetch. They insist there’s value in researching the best restaurant on Yelp, finding the cheapest flight online, or standing in line at the post office.

The best analogy I can think of as to why we should get comfortable with being lazy is the programming revolution. In the early days, programmers kept volumes of reference books on their shelves to look up how to write different pieces of code. Then that information became available through listservs. Then googling. Then people realized that pieces of code that were being written over and over again could just be aggregated into libraries, scripts, and frameworks. Today, less code needs to be written than ever before to create the same effect.

There are some old-school programmers who think today’s programmers are a joke. Some of those concerns are real, like being able to scale a database or take adequate security measures. But those back-end tasks will soon be automated, too, thanks to AWS, Heroku, Treeline and others.

Less time spent on menial coding means more time to think smartly about what you’re building. And less time spent on menial tasks means more time for humans to focus on higher cognitive goals.

IQ in many parts of the world is increasing over time: roughly three points per decade among Americans. James Flynn, who first documented the effect, points out that our increase in IQ comes not from improvement on concrete or memorization tasks, but on those requiring abstractions and hypotheticals. And, he notes, “Better analysis of hypothetical situations means more innovation.”

New technologies aren’t making us lazier. They’re making us smarter.