If a Time Traveler Saw a Smartphone

An interesting article about technology augmenting our mental processes. I think the article makes a good point, but I think it overplays the point, at least a bit. In a sense, all the technology does is speed up the research process (or democratize it, as we no longer have to hire someone to do the research). That’s a largely good thing; but there are at least three key points we need to consider.

First, what is the cost of our ability to reason and evaluate things when our knowledge is in external memory? Knowledge from pre-technology memory is constantly available and shapes our values and patterns of thinking in ways the external memory can’t (or at least can’t consistently). And even the process of acquiring data may be relevant. Long ago I read a science fiction story with that premise; knowledge downloaded into the brain (not external, to be sure), limited creative and innovative potential. Maybe that’s true.

Second, given the knowledge explosion, how can we be sure we find the correct information for questions? Maybe we’re missing a key fact, maybe the search engines are hiding or filtering it, or perhaps some other barrier keeps us away from one key piece of data. We may have more data, but we can’t be sure we have all the right ones. This has always been an issue, but technology may make us arrogant about the extent of our knowledge or create new barriers to what we need.

And third, it’s what we do with knowledge that is important. Lacking the full context and the experiential background that in prior generations accompanied learning things may make us vulnerable to misusing the knowledge we have – or make us subject to propaganda of a sort or manipulation. One only needs look at extremely ideological websites, where people who have access to all this technology live in knowledge bubbles that seem to keep them from truth.

At least, that’s a few quick thoughts.


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