Your Brain on Digital Media: Changed

There can be no doubt that we are changed by the technologies we use.

Corresponding to the significant sounds in our utterances, ancient alphabets allowed thoughts to be preserved and extended the human writ, which made possible civil institutions and empire building. More recently, the plow and refrigeration affected where we settled, as well as the quality and kinds of foods we ate. Paved roads and reliable motorized transportation expanded commerce and eased the flow of human capital.

In each of these cases the full revolutionary effects these new technologies could not have been known in advance. So it is in our current moment.

Clive Thompson, who will speak at IdeaFestival 2014, identifies three biases in the sudden bloom of information devices and, consequently, our always-on culture. Occupying trillions of waystations in the form of IP addresses, these tools do more than simply connect us to each other. They affect what and how we think.

Digital Tools Have a Mind of Their Own:

First, they allow for prodigious external memory: smartphones, hard drives, cameras, and sensors routinely record more information than any tool before them. We’re shifting from a stance of rarely recording our ideas and the events of our lives to doing it habitually.

Second, today’s tools make it easier for us to find connections—between ideas, pictures, people, bits of news—that were previously invisible.

Third, they encourage a superfluity of communication and publishing.

In the midst of this revolution, many not-quite-right-not-quite-wrong predictions are being made. And, as Thompson hints at in his third point, the surfeit of information comes at a cost. That's because insofar as we can intimately know anything, physical experience must play a role. Indeed, the irony of the current moment is that the creators of the artificial intelligences have come to understand that our minds can be found in our arms and legs, which is to say biologically distributed, and are striving to bring context to their intelligent machines, while the human beings who work online markets, in possession of the gift of consciousness, have ruthlessly pursued a highly constrained measure of the mind, which is our collective willingness to click on one suspect lede after another. The bargain, sadly, is one-sided. And since our machines are incapable of interpreting our silence, more's the pity. This surfluity and the resulting digital detritus certainly provides ample room for others to sow Onion'y fields of mocking plenty.

No one now knows what will be wrought by the current technologies, only that everyone now has access to a medium through which they may make their thinking known. As for me, I'm certainly looking forward to hearing Thompson expand upon the biases in our tools at IdeaFestival 2014. The medium will include a comfortable seat in an air conditioned theater.

Please be aware that the price for a IdeaFestival 2014 Festival Pass will go up at 10a ET, Thurs., Sept. 4! But between now and then you can get your discounted pass here.

Stay curious.


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee