Recently there’s been a spate of writing about how too much technology might be making us stupid. The argument goes that technologies like the Internet, smart phones, computers, and various automated services, from grocery counters to teller machines, are doing so much of our thinking for us, that we will simply forget how to use our brains. Nicholas Carr created quite a stir last year when he asked in the Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Jaron Lanier, renowned computer scientist and Virtual Reality pioneer, frets in his latest book, You Are Not A Gadget, that we are being turned into mere button-pushers who bend our habits to the demands of the interfaces and electronics that surround us.
The vision is similar to what happens in the Disney movie, Wall-E, where intelligent robots are able to anticipate our every need so perfectly that no one has to lift a finger, almost literally, to get anything they want. Consequently, everyone becomes too fat to move without the assistance of yet more robots. The same process of atrophy is supposed to be afflicting our brains now, thanks to information super-highway of the Internet, which ladles out knowledge with speed and alacrity.
These apocalyptic visions remind me of dire predictions in my youth of how intelligence would become rapidly lower in the United States and much higher in India, because there were no ATMs or cash registers there. Surprisingly for those doomsayers, the world’s most innovative and richest technology companies continue to be founded in the United States rather than in India.
Over the years, I have come to realize that these worries are nothing unusual. It is a pastime for the commentators of any age to predict ways in which the latest technologies will ruin the future generation. Even in ancient Roman ruins, diary entries have been found bemoaning the depraved attitudes of the youth and those who had dared to introduce new ideas and technologies. A hundred years ago, the internal combustion engine was thought by some to be an infernal device, which would cover us all in hellish soot and destroy all trace of civilization. Clearly, the ill effects of any technology are usually greatly exaggerated. New technologies are a disruptive force and hence will always be feared by the vast majority of the population, which can stand to profit in the near term from the status quo.
Rather than worry about a dumbing down that may never happen, why not look the latent potential in human intelligence and in nascent technologies of the present day? Even though the Internet is already close to half a century old since its beginnings as a defense research-funded project, it still holds the promise of futures we can barely dream of. There are other technologies in the areas of genetics and pharmaceutics, for instance, which will also change humanity in fundamental ways.
To understand where the Web is really taking us, we should turn to the examples provided by directors like Nina Paley, who made an animated re-telling of the Ramayana and used the Internet to bring it to mass distribution; by sites like Craigslist that have succeeded in building diverse communities in an otherwise moribund industry like online classifieds; and by the vibrant citizen journalism we see on websites like Huffington Post and Daily Kos.
This future is made possible, among other things, by the low cost of distribution and by the ease of connecting artistic and journalistic material instantly with exactly the audience that is interested in it. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and eBay have only scratched the bare surface of the potential that the Internet holds for us. When we look at the unexplored frontiers of knowledge opened up by trail-blazing of companies like these, we can only anticipate how much more intelligent, rather than stupid, the Internet will make us.
The Internet makes some choices for us, but it also gives us the ability to make the choices we want. Shopping on the Internet is not like walking into a supermarket, where you have to look at what’s presented on the aisle, and then try to decide which is better. On the Internet, you get to specify what you want, and a plethora of websites jump to do your bidding. If they fail, they fall off the search results page of the top search engines. The customer, indeed, is paramount.
The power of the Internet to instantly connect people with similar interests, to harness the wisdom of the crowds effortlessly, and to provide a cheap solution to the easy storage and recall of the infinite produce of human wisdom all mean that, in the Internet and allied technologies, we have a force that can alter the course of human history in a positive way like no other. The Internet cannot dumb us down, any more than reading books instead of memorizing everything one learned suggested once that our capacity to remember would atrophy.
The critical difference between the waves of technologies that have lifted the fortunes of humanity in the past and this era of the information revolution is that information gets cheaper to replicate all the time. It is no easier to build a tank today than it was 50 years ago, but it is easier to build a web service. This ease means we can transfer this skill back and forth across national boundaries, democratizing information and reducing barriers to the professions that rely on gathering and analyzing it. Once we throw open the doors to accessing information, we can trust human ingenuity to use that information to generate more wealth and knowledge, rather than less.
The author is a software consultant in the United States.