William Webster

written by

William Webster

Researcher, Avoncourt Partners GmbH

Culture Blog - Oct 12, 2017

Smart phones, robots and the human intellect

“The art of remembering is the art of thinking,” said philosopher William James in a lecture in 1892. Little did he imagine what challenges humanity would face 125 years later.

Humans are getting a lot of flak nowadays about our reliance on technology to aide in thinking.

In 1991, scientists discovered a Neolithic man, dubbed “Otzi,” who was preserved in an Alpine glacier. On his belt they found a fire-making kit: flints, pyrite for striking sparks, a dry powdery fungus for tinder, and embers of cedar that had been wrapped in leaves. Previous to the invention of the electric light, fire was the only way known to man to light the world around him. In 1873, Charles Brush began work on an electric generating and arc lighting system. He installed his first system in 1878 in Wabash, Indiana. Within two years, there were Brush arc lighting systems in the streets of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Montreal, Buffalo and San Francisco. The introduction of electric lighting drew criticism from Brush’s contemporaries. Indeed the new illumination was beneficial in many ways, but the human understanding and appreciation for fire would diminish, people said. People feared that a single generation of youth would lose the knowledge gained by 10,000 years of history.

These fears are not much different in their argumentation than those of today about smart phones. Studies claim that smart phones will diminish the human’s capacity for critical thinking. In an April 2017 article in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Dr. Adrian Ward and his colleagues wrote that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain” that can diminish such vital mental skills as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.” In a study conducted at the University of Essex in the U.K., 142 participants were divided into pairs and asked to converse in private for 10 minutes. Half talked with a phone in the room, while half had no phone present. The subjects were then given tests of trust and empathy. “The mere presence of mobile phones,” the researchers reported in 2013 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, “inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust” and diminished “the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”

In a seminal 2011 study published in Science, a team of researchers led by the Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow had a group of volunteers read 40 brief, factual statements (such as “The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over Texas in Feb. 2003”) and then type the statements into a computer. Half the people were told that the machine would save what they typed; half were told that the statements would be immediately erased. Afterward, the researchers asked the subjects to write down as many of the statements as they could remember. Those who believed that the facts had been recorded in the computer demonstrated much weaker recall than those who assumed the facts wouldn’t be stored. Anticipating that information would be readily available in digital form seemed to reduce the mental effort that people made to remember it. The researchers dubbed this phenomenon the “Google effect” and noted its broad implications: “Because search engines are continually available to us, we may often be in a state of not feeling we need to encode the information internally. When we need it, we will look it up.”

Smart phone and recognition technology, especially cognitive automation, are certainly new additions to the human experience. Nevertheless the claim that human are becoming “stupider” has been a claim that the introduction of technological advances have frequently drawn. In fact, it has been the feat of the human mind to adapt to new circumstances. Consider the invention of the production line or the radio. Complicated processes of the human mind and body were automatised or made easier. Civilisations have successfully integrated these advancements into the coming generations. The challenge has not been how to retain previous habits, but how to build new habits to allow the human spirit to thrive. This is the path that we now face in light of the introductions of smart phones and cognitive automation technology in the past two decades.

It remains the duty of education, formation and the upbringing of children to instill not just practical knowledge (how to light a fire or how to remember the dates of the Battle of Waterloo), but how to integrate both practical and theoretical knowledge into a cohesive worldview and to do things for the betterment of the state of humanity and the environment. Control and limitation of access to technology are not needed. Responsibility and self-knowledge are pertinent. One very important rule never to forget: Knowledge is power, so if you know how to take care of yourself, you can be a better version of yourself.