Is technology boosting or roasting our brains?
If you happen to ask Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows,” he’ll tell you that it’s enfeebling our cognitive capabilities. If, on the other hand, you read Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think,” you’d believe that technology is improving our minds.
Who to go with? Neither. We’re both smarter and stupider at the same time.
In a blog in The New Yorker, “If a Time Traveler Saw a Smartphone,” Tim Wu writes that these two writers arrive at diametrically opposite conclusions because of how they define “we.”
He resolves the contradiction using a hypothetical scenario in which a time traveler from 1914 is asked by a scientist to gauge the intelligence of the person standing behind a curtain in a room. He can ask any question he pleases.
The impressively short response time, the accuracy of responses, and the breath of her knowledge, would astonish him, and he’d inevitably conclude that the human race had acquired a far superior intelligence over the last 100 years.
But the person behind the screen, is only one of us, “a regular human who has augmented her brain using two tools: her mobile phone and a connection to the Internet and, thus, to websites like Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Quora.”
“With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods.” But take away our tools and we’re likely stupider than our friend from the early 20th century, “who has a longer attention span, may read and write Latin, and does math faster.”
Thompson is judging the cyborg, while Carr is judging the man underneath.
h/t: THE NEW YORKER