Technological innovation builds our minds, does it build society too?



As we build our world we build our minds: reboot

Six years ago, while I was writing my PhD on technology and human nature, I wrote a blog where I argued that:

  1. Context builds us – Our social and technological environments can hinder, but they can also drive psychological development.
  2. Technology drives human development – Physical and digital tools shape us and build our intelligence; small doses of technology cause transient changes and long-term exposure has lasting effects.
  3. Our minds depend on technology – Much of what is unique and modern about human minds depends on technology for its development.
  4. The technology we build, in turn builds us – Basically, as we invent stuff, we change the context of development for the next generation, and they grow up with different thinking and affordances.
  5. Hence, technological innovation causes and sustains psychological evolution.

This reasoning was mostly based on the interplay of relatively static technological tools and human minds. However, we now see a range of dynamic and powerful technological tools emerging. This has important implications for human nature and the nature of society.

Building our minds

The symbols, media, tools, and methods that we invent shape and extend our minds. This is our brain’s ancient trick and amplifies what we are capable of achieving. We frequently make use of external supports to extend our brain’s capabilities (think words, lists, numbers, the abacus, abstract diagrams, calculators, number lines, and a range of other tools).

On the other hand, without technology we are mentally crippled. Without our abacuses and iPhones we are like Alzheimer’s patients without their post-it notes and pill schedules. As well as appearing rapidly, a lot of recent human evolutionary psychological advances could disappear overnight should the technological context sustaining them change.

These changes can be slow or fast. Geological processes are usually slow and ancient, but earthquakes show us that they can be sudden and dramatic. In analogous ways, small changes to technology can change the cognition of a population slowly over time, but significant innovations, such as mathematical symbols or the internet, can have sudden unexpected effects. With new technologies come new implications. Cue artificial intelligence…

The reason we see these effects is because the brain is a highly malleable organ. Stimulated at the right stage of development it can be made to do, or not do, almost anything.

But the more we offload responsibility and dynamic cognitive processes to intelligences other than our own, the more we risk becoming automated masters of our own creations. Instead of technology augmenting our intelligence, we risk merely obeying algorithms. If thought is offloaded to digital supports and never re-internalized, the cognitive loop is broken and instead we divest cognition, and therefore power and control.

A mother’s diet has a critical effect on the future health of the unborn. In similar fashion technological diet in childhood shapes thought processes. Given our ability to build a range of different technological environments for our children, then it is likely that our innovation wittingly or unwittingly causes an array of emotional and psychological traits. Ever since technology was invented, as we build our world we have been building our minds.

Building society’s future

That was my conclusion in 2011, but there is an important extension of the argument to society and democracy, as noted in a Scientific American article this year.

Society and social structures are just as malleable as human minds. The technological environment of a society produces a set of affordances, and with affordances come possible actions, institutions and norms. The technological environment, coupled with our tendency to now offload dynamic processes (once the domain of thought) to digital systems, means that technological uptake is wittingly, or unwittingly building the nature of our society.

The old dogma was that technology does not determine people, because it is how we use technology that is important. However, in the new world of dynamic and autonomous technologies that dogma must be called into question.

The moral of the story is that we must reflect carefully on the possible consequences of introducing even benign seeming technologies, and uphold a principle of precaution and willingness to respond with rules and norms should things not turn out as we expected.

At Adapt Research Ltd we are very interested in the social, philosophical, psychological and ethical aspects of technology and innovation. Contact us here to continue the discussion.

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