What does it mean to be human? What are characteristics of a human being? Is is ones “humaneness” and immutable state?
There is this discussion going around on the internet these days about how technology is changing the way we think. Part of this is based on that attention whoring book written by Zimbardo which is essentially a publicity flame-bait directed at video game playing, porn watching, 18-30 male demographic of internet denizens. Partly it is based on various observations and studies that examine things like “The Google Effect” (people’s tendency not to commit to memory things they can easily look up) or the way mobile technology affects studying habits of the modern youth. There are papers and books being written about it, technology journals get to sensationalize it gaining extra clicks and people are getting worried about it. From what I gleaned, the consensus is that technology is totally fucking up our brains right now and unless we stop we are heading towards some epic cognitive collapse. Of course no one can explain how this collapse is going to come about, and why – people just know that technology is bad because it changes us. It makes us different.
I find all of this really, really dumb. I am not a psychologist, or behavioral and cognitive specialist. I have not done any empirical studies on the subject so I won’t make any scientific claims here. I won’t dispute the findings of all these research projects. Yes, the technology is changing how we think, and how we catalogue and process information. But is that automatically a bad thing? I just don’t buy this immediate assumption that change is a bad thing.
Does it really matter that children being born right now will use their brains in radically different way than their parents? That they will organize, access and catalog data differently? That they will be much more likely to offload the mundane task of “remembering” into silicone chips, instead using their gray matter for more abstract thinking? Why is this bad? Why adopting to the rapidly changing information landscape is harmful?
Is there a plan to halt progress and return to more pastoral, primitive mode of society at some point in the next decade or two? If not, then why are we worried that our children won’t have the slow-motion analog thinking skills that are rapidly becoming irrelevant as we speak. Let me put it this way – it’s like being worried that kids today won’t know how to use a library card catalog, even though most modern libraries don’t actually use card catalogs anymore, but instead use a computer terminal with a web-based search interface. That’s really how I see this entire discussion. Bunch of slow-thinking, analog people scoffing at the new digital generation of infovores who have learned to remember in-silico and freed up their analytical minds allowing them to do higher abstraction.
I see it all the time – a technophobic parent, with mind working at a speed of a glacier complaining that technology is rotting their kids brain. In the meantime their teenage kid is a hactivist, cryptoanarchist, citizen of the world and a programmer. The kid has read, seen and understood more than his/her parents ever even imagined – participated in discussions more complex or abstract than anything the parents can even conceive. But no, technology is bad. It changes how we think, so it must be stopped. It’s kind off pathetic really.
Let me give you an interesting example: back in the ancient times, before we have invented writing all we had was oral tradition. To preserve our myths and histories we had to memorize them. The stories we told were heavily influenced by this – if you read Homeric epics you will notice they are constructed a certain way – they have a certain rhythm, they have mnemonics, frequent alliterations, repetition and various other memorization friendly devices. Most of that stuff faded from our storytelling as soon as we figured out how to write stuff down. Our ancestors figured out how to offload the tedious memorization into other media – stone, parchment, papyrus scrolls and etc. Once they did it, it freed them to tell more complex, abstract stories. It allowed them to construct non-linear narratives, to experiment, to play with the language and push boundaries of how a story can be told. Something like Finnegan’s Wake would be cognitively impossible to be told by an oral tradition bard. It was made possible by the technological leap we made from memorization to recording written word.
Naturally we have lost something in the transition. We have lost most of the memorization skills. I don’t think there are many people in the world right now who can recite Illiad length stories from memory. There might be a few out there who can probably rattle off the ancient epics as a exhibition trick, but no one really does it seriously anymore. It is a lost art, that might be still practiced by select few but which has no real application in the modern world.
Similarly, our stories lost the mutability of the oral epics. Myths and folk stories memorized by bards have always been in flux. Each storyteller could mold them, improve upon them and re-shape them to their personal preference. Over generations these stories would mutate, for better or for worse – but usually tend towards improvement. Once we have written them in stone, they became static – frozen in time, and no longer evolving. They could no longer adapt to the changing language, current events or changing systems of belief like the oral histories did. But in exchange we got a historical snapshot of how the story was back when it was created. It is a troff, but most people will probably agree that we are better off now than we were back then.
Our transition to silicone memory and lookup mentality is a similar leap. We change the way we think, because our world is changing. Our technology is becoming a bigger part of our lives and we are adapting to it. And why shouldn’t we? Why should we do things the way our parents did, when we have tools that do it for us? Why should we cultivate archaic methods of thinking and learning if our pocket phones and hand-held devices are rapidly making these skills redundant if not obsolete. We are at a threshold of a new age – a time when the boundary between man and the machine will become more and more blurred. Our tools make us smarter, faster and more efficient than ever. Why is this bad? Why shouldn’t we evolve? Why shouldn’t we transcend the human condition and see how deep this rabbit hole leads?
My dad thinks he does not need a smart phone. He is wrong of course, but that’s fine. But does the fact that he can’t figure it out, and that he does not see why it is useful make my use of it automatically bad and pathological? Does the fact that I offload a lot of the tedious memorization into a chunk of silicone I carry in my pocket makes me a lesser person?
Change is not always bad. Especially the kind of change that helps us become more than human. For one, I am ready to welcome the singularity with the open arms. Let’s not shackle ourselves to the past. Let’s not let fear of change inhibit us, and prevent us from achieving our full potential. Lets make that leap into the future together.