The fading memory of arithmetic

Isaac Asimov once wrote a SciFi story named The feeling of Power, in which a future age has become so accustomed to computers that the rediscovery of how to calculate sums with pencil and paper – or in one’s head – is considered a major breakthrough.

That age may be nearer than we think. Recently we went shopping and were told by a pleasant young salesgirl that we’ll get a 10% discount on an item listed at 360 NIS. I figured the final price in my head, while the girl whipped out a rather large desktop calculator and proceeded to pound its keys, displaying the result a few seconds after I’d finished. Not that I claim any arithmetical prowess: it wasn’t like I had to figure 83.45% of 382.44 NIS. Taking 36 from 360 is no big deal.

But I was curious, so I asked the young woman whether she could have figured the result without the calculator; and she admitted she couldn’t have. She didn’t seem embarrassed about it; she sounded as if I’d asked whether she could read cuneiform script, or design a spaceship. Of course she couldn’t; that’s what calculators were for, after all…

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