It was a stunning and unexpected comment from a man who helped accelerate the computer age. The man who invented the integrated circuit and the electronic calculator was sharing with me that his work had an unexpected and undesirable consequence.

I was sitting at the breakfast table with Nobel Prize winner Jack Kilby and two of his fellow retired engineers from Texas Instruments. Each Saturday morning, three friends gathered to eat donuts, drink coffee, and shoot the breeze. It was December 2000, a week after Jack had returned from Oslo having received the Nobel medallion for inventing the integrated circuit. He had done the work for Texas Instruments in 1958 in response the US government’s commission to change the world of heavy and hot vacuum tubes by lowering cost, simplifying the assembly, making the electronics smaller and more reliable. By making the electronics smaller, cooler, and cheaper – known then as “miniaturization” – they could put them on a rocket and match the sudden threat from the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik. NASA’s Apollo rocket and the Minuteman missile were made possible from this miniaturization. But it didn't stop there. The integrated circuit was the key to the acceleration of the computer age. 

I was there to meet and interview a man who I admired for his innovation. He was a living legend in the world of electronics and computers and he lived within a few minutes of me. I hoped to learn from him what formulated the development of his thinking and the historical events that came together to forge the technological threshold. I learned of his Saturday morning meetings from a student of mine when, in class one day, I mentioned my admiration for Jack Kilby. After class, she told me that her grandfather’s house was the weekly meeting place. I asked for an invitation. 
Jack was a tall man with stooped shoulders. He had a raspy, smoker's voice and didn’t say anything unless it was in response to my questions. In the course of the conversation, I heard one of the other engineers mention that he collected slide rules. That comment seemed out of place with what these men had done in their careers. I laughingly said, “You men killed the slide rule industry, putting them out of business!” That’s when Jack Kilby said, “And we killed the math mind.” The room went silent.
Seeking to understand more fully what this legendary engineer and electronics pioneer meant, I pressed him to explain. He said, “When people used slide rules, they had to approximate the answer. It wasn’t a precise answer. Mathematical computations and numerical relationships were understood by the one solving the problem, and each time they worked on the answer, they got closer. People had to understand mathematical formulas and concepts and then work from there. Today, people use a calculator and input the numbers and hit a function key and have their answer. The mind is no longer used in the same way. It isn’t being developed in children anymore.”

Jack Kilby’s calculator had “killed the math mind.”

As an educator, I realized Jack Kilby’s comment, a virtual lament, was stunning for its irony. Although he was not decrying the advancement of the technological development (and neither am I), he and his Saturday morning friends were troubled by the loss of something more important. They were saddened by the diminishment of people’s ability to mentally process and naturally problem solve. They were nostalgic for a time when people used technology – a slide rule was a calculator of a different sort – to engage their mental processes instead of a day when the mind engaged a technological device. In the fifteen years since my interview, the minds of developing children are further reduced to the level of observing the entertainment of the technological devices.

Today, “number sense” and the “math mind” no longer refer to mentally processing mathematical equations and the relationship of concepts, which is equally true for writing prose, poetry, and music; instead, it now refers to the number of “likes” or “followers” one has.

Computers have continued to be “miniaturized,” and now a mobile device is in the hands of children. Communication is instantaneous. There is no lack for visuals in millions of colors. However, with more, there is less. There is a world of data, but no framework to determine value. There is more knowledge and less wisdom. Great observations, but little interpretation and even less Truth. Videos and posts go viral, but little is vital.

The Great Temptation of educators is to believe the latest technological device, smart phone, tablet, MacBook, Surface, or Chromebook in the hands of schoolchildren will improve learning and test scores. While important, tests scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates are just a small portion of the educational process. The best education is the improvement of the humanity of students. Is it possible that uncritical use of technology is dehumanizing students by weakening cognitive ability, destroying empathy, creating shortened attention spans, and fostering impatience with difficult moments?

There are schools that recognize the nature of this tension and are working to counter the dependence on technology at the expense of a diminished mind. They are educating and graduating people with great personal depth. The students are able to work from concepts to particulars and devise new approaches to solving problems. They will become leaders because they can analyze data, synthesize the various components, interpret their meaning, and articulate the narrative for others.

There is no appeal to return to the days of slide rules. That wasn't the point of Jack Kilby's work nor my reflection on the importance of what he said. However, there are things that have been left behind that can actually improve our life's experience.

Try this: Set aside some time to rekindle the wonder and power of your mind. Try it at home with your family. My list is in no way, exhaustive. It's modest attempt to demonstrate easy and simple ways we can develop and utilize our minds afresh. Begin to solve a problem with the least amount of technology. Memorize the multiplication table. Count out money. Multiply and divide fractions. Work on an equation to describe and explain a problem around the house: how much does it cost to mow the yard? How tall is the tree in the backyard, calculated by only using the angle of the shadow and the distance from the trunk? Have an in-depth conversation about a new topic you don’t understand. Read a classic book and discuss it with someone. Create a poem. Write a song. Write a letter to someone. In cursive. Mail it.

The Swiss playwright, Max Frisch said, “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it."

For too many, it is a way of life.
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(In the picture, taken during my interview, Jack Kilby is slightly left of center, with his back to the wall.)