We still haven’t grappled with the deep questions Nicholas Carr brought to public attention in his seminal book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010). Is the internet making us dumb? Is the technology causing us cognitive loss or debilitation? Carr focused on the internet, which is, by design, a dumb technology—a general-purpose digital communication infrastructure that pushed “intelligence” to the ends of the network.
Since my own book Re-Engineering Humanity, co-authored by Evan Sellinger, was published, I’m often asked: Is smart technology making us dumb? My first reaction is to bounce a few questions back. Can technology really be smart? Is your question whether our use of certain technologies is making us dumb? Or is your question about technology companies?
Eventually, I return to the original question and respond like a lawyer: It depends. It’s yes, in some ways and no in others. Before addressing it, we must acknowledge the conceptual mistake of boiling intelligence down to a binary—smart versus dumb—as if it exists on a single dimension. There are many different types of intelligence that matter, and how technology affects different types also varies considerably.
Once I’m done meandering, however I answer yes. I believe we may be making ourselves dumber when we outsource thinking and rely on supposedly smart tech to micromanage our daily lives for the sake of cheap convenience.
The internet provides us with seemingly limitless data, prose, images, video and other raw materials that could in theory enhance our intelligence and enable us to become more knowledgeable, to be more skillful or to otherwise use actionable intelligence. Maybe we could improve our decision-making, reflect on our beliefs, interrogate our own biases, and so on.
But do we? Who does? Who exactly is made smarter? And how? And with respect to what? Are you and I, and our siblings and children, engaging with the seemingly limitless raw materials in a manner that makes us more capable, more intelligent? Or do we find ourselves outsourcing more and more? Do we find ourselves mindlessly following scripts written or designed by others?
We’re easily led to believe that we’re extending our minds and becoming more intelligent with a little help from the digital tech tools, when in reality, those are often just illusions, sales pitches optimized to pave the path of least resistance. Every time someone suggests they’ve extended their mind with their smartphone, that they are thinking through and with their phones, I respond by asking them about who’s doing what thinking.
Are they extending their mind or extending the reach of others into their mind? When you rely on GPS, who’s doing the route planning? Who is gaining what intelligence? Are you smarter because of GPS? What impact does outsourcing navigation and awareness of your surroundings have on your capabilities? Certainly, Waze or Google gain intelligence about you, your surroundings and even others around you. That could be good or bad, but it’s not really extending your mind or expanding your intelligence.
As everyone knows by now, many digital tech companies know a lot about each of us. Advertisers, Cambridge Analytica–like firms, large platforms and so on. They’ve gained considerable intelligence and, as a result, power. But note that for the most part, they feed on different raw materials. They don’t get smart by consuming the same materials that we’re fed.
They gain actionable intelligence by collecting treasure troves of data, gleaned from digital networked technologies. Everything that occurs on the internet—every interaction, transaction, communication, etc.—everything is data, strings of 0s and 1s. And all of our activities generate data. Digital tech companies gain actionable intelligence by collecting and processing data, mostly about how we behave in response to different stimuli—what we’re fed. This empowers those companies. They may, for example, personalize their services to induce desirable behaviors, such as sustained engagement. Or they may develop new salable insights about consumers. I could go on. But the bottom line is that digital tech companies get smarter, more capable, more powerful.
But what about you and me? Do we also get smarter? Do we extend our minds and thereby gain intelligence and increased capabilities? What actual capabilities are extended or enhanced? Are they in fact practiced? If so, to what end? What actionable intelligence improves the quality of your life?
Upon reflection, I remain uncertain. Again, the lawyer in me emerges, and I can reach no definitive evaluation. Does that say something about me and my reflective capacity, the ambiguity of empirical evidence, or something else?
The internet promised the library of Alexandria at our fingertips, delivered instantaneously wherever and whenever we like. It delivered that and much, much more. One might describe the exchange in Faustian terms, as trading one’s soul for knowledge. Putting aside concerns about what’s been lost (our soul, humanity, etc.), it’s not even clear that the promised knowledge was delivered. To make matters worse, evaluating the Faustian bargain is even more difficult when the intellectual capabilities required to do so seem to be waning, at least for many of us.