Is technology helping to evolve our consiousness? Or….
Or is it DE-evolving our consciousness? I would submit that Technology is de-evovling us, here is why
Some Thoughts on Writing and Technology
As a public Librarian people often complain to me that all our new technologies have made us stupid, or will soon have this effect on the younger generations. Last week a patron told me he does not share our culture’s fascination with technology and would much rather read a book. This reminded me of the people who have told me they don’t do drugs while smoking a cigarette and downing a mixed drink full of alcohol and sugar, or sipping a cup of coffee for that matter. While we don’t ordinarily think of a book as technology any more than most of us consider coffee a drug, it actually represents many technologies.
Technology, as I see it, is any tool humans have created. These tools range from the earliest chipped flint hand axes, to the newest microprocessor. Some of our technologies are physical objects, others are abstract or non-physical systems which nevertheless have a powerful effect on our society (government, legal codes, scientific methods of inquiry). This means that even spoken language is a technology. Somebody, or a group of somebodies over time, had to think it up and arbitrarily assign sounds to real things (I plan to explore this particular theme more in depth in later posts). A book, which this patron refused to recognize as a piece of technology, relies on technologies starting with the phonetic alphabet and the printing press, but extending to the entire economic model and distribution system that produces the book and puts it in the reader’s hands.
Still, I understand the point he wanted to make. In fact, on some level I share his concern. It amazes me that many patrons at my library, children and adults alike, have no idea how to look up books in the online catalog. While I was not the most studious child, I remember looking up books in a physical card catalog in grade school. So it puzzles me that people my age and older do not know how to perform a much simpler task. However, I realize that this concern about humans becoming dependent on technology is not new. The debate is probably almost as old as technology itself. When people tell me google and wikipedia will make kids dumb I often tell them a story to put this situation in perspective. I like to quote the story of Thoth and Thamus from the Phaedrus dialogue.
In Egypt one of the old gods of that country, to whom the bird they call Ibis was sacred, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. Among his inventions were number and calculation and geometry and astronomy, not to speak of various kinds of draughts and dice, and, above all writing. The king of the whole country at that time was Thamus, who lived in the great city of Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes; the name they give to Thamus is Ammon. To him came Theuth and exhibited his inventions, claiming that they ought to be made known to the Egyptians in general….But when it came to writing, Theuth declared:
‘Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.’
‘Theuth, my paragon of inventors,’ replied the king, ‘the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this case; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.
Plato, Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII. Trans. by Walter Hamilton (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 95-97
Does this conversation sound familiar? It does to me. I could easily replace the word writing with “wikipedia” or “google” and it would sound like conversations I have had on more than one occasion. Surely the views expressed in this story reflect the views of people at that time. Just like today some people promoted a technology without fully considering the biases, only thinking about what the new medium will give us while not paying attention to what it will take away. While others quickly attack the medium by pointing out only what it will take away.
This debate gets to the heart of our relationship with technology. While we find it hard to imagine living without technology, we tend to fear we will become reliant on new technologies without realizing how much we already depend on existing technologies. Although some may lament the disappearance of the physical card catalog for making a search too easy, we seem to forget that the card catalog itself is a technology people once did without. I wonder if anyone complained that the card catalog made things too easy when it first became widely used. I find it hard to believe anyone could extol the benefits of the predecessors of the card catalog, which as far as I know consisted of less detailed catalogs in book form, or just walking around hoping to find the information you needed. Yet for some reason we see merit in performing tedious tasks. Surely, they can have their advantages. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, when we upgrade to a new medium we lose some of the advantages of the old medium. However, we also retrieve these advantages in later upgrades. (I plan to discuss this eventually in a post about his concept of the Tetrad.)
What then of Thamus’ response to Thoth? Do we sacrifice our internal resources by turning to external ones? I would answer yes, but at the same time we free up processing power in our brains to deal with still more complex issues. So we don’t exactly end up going easy on ourselves, we just find ways to allow technology to take care of our more rote intellectual tasks. So we will become more dependent on search engines and such. Just as we have become dependent on writing and the advantages it brings. But these tools will also allow us to accomplish things we could not have done without them. If we continue to rely on these tools we may as Thamus says appear knowledgeable when we are quite ignorant, not knowing much and instead just looking it up. However, this might not be so terrible. With the glut of information we can’t possibly learn everything so we may need these tools in order to get our bearings in an increasingly complex world. This requires greater media literacy on our part, which to me simply means continuing the conversation started by Thoth and Thamus. I don’t think we will outsource all our memory. In order to use these new tools we will probably still need strong memories and they may even cause us develop new kinds of thinking. Perhaps we might even develop tools that allow us to develop our memory to the same degree as orators like Cicero and others who practiced what Frances Yates called the art of memory (more on that in a later post).
In an effort to show the practical applications of this idea, I suggest watching a recent TED lecture by Conrad Wolfram. He argues that we currently put too much emphasis on computation in math education. Wolfram points out that while we need to teach this skill to some degree, computers do it so much better than humans that we would better serve students by emphasizing mathematical skills which help them know when to perform these computations.
For further reading on these topics check out:
- What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
- Phaedrus by Plato
- Plato’s Pharmacy Jacques Derrida
- The Global Village : transformations in world life and media in the 21st century by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers
- The Art of Memory Frances Yates
Another big question is in regards to our consciousness and the Internet…
fist watch this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMh8oBdKkK4
and compare it to this http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA172C9A342C7B6CD&feature=plcp
and you will see that surely people are moving their consciousness into a new fake reality, away from nature and into the world wide web of the INTERNET, digital reality.