NY Times Asks: Are We Becoming Cyborgs?_Featured_, Technology Sunday, December 30th, 2012
SINCE broadband began its inexorable spread at the start of this millenium, Internet use has expanded at a cosmic rate. Last year, the number of Internet users topped 2.4 billion — more than a third of all humans on the planet. The time spent on the screen was 16 hours per week globally — double that in high-use countries, and much of that on social media. We have changed how we interact. Are we also changing what we are?
We put that question to three people who have written extensively on the subject, and brought them together to discuss it with Serge Schmemann, the editor of this magazine. The participants: Susan Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford. She has written and spoken widely on the impact of new technology on users’ brains. Maria Popova, the curator behind Brain Pickings, a Web site of “eclectic interestingness.” She is also an M.I.T. Futures of Entertainment Fellow and writes for Wired and The Atlantic. Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom . He is a contributing editor to The New Republic .
Serge Schmemann : The question we are asking is: Are we being turned into cyborgs? Are new digital technologies changing us in a more profound and perhaps troubling way than any previous technological breakthrough?
Let me start with Baroness Greenfield. Susan, you’ve said some very scary things about the impact of the Internet not only on how we think, but on our brains. You have said that new technologies are invasive in a way that the printing press, say, or the electric light or television were not. What is so different?
Susan Greenfield: Can I first qualify this issue of “scary”? What I’m really trying to do is stimulate the debate and try and keep extreme black or white value judgments out of it. Whether people find it scary or not is a separate question.
Very broadly, I’d like to suggest that technologies up until now have been a means to an end. The printing press enabled you to read both fiction and fact that gave you insight into the real world. A fridge enabled you to keep your food fresh longer. A car or a plane enabled you to travel farther and faster.
What concerns me is that the current technologies have been converted from being means to being ends. Instead of complementing or supplementing or enriching life in three dimensions, an alternative life in just two dimensions — stimulating only hearing and vision — seems to have become an end in and of itself. That’s the first difference.
The second is the sheer pervasiveness of these technologies over the other technologies. Whilst it’s one thing for someone like my mum, who’s 85 and a widow, to go onto Facebook for the first time — not that she’s done this, but I’d love for her to do it — to actually widen her circle and stimulate her brain, there are stats coming out, for example, that over 50 percent of kids, between 13 and 17, spend 30-plus hours a week recreationally in front of a screen.
So what concerns me is not the technology in itself, but the degree to which it has become a lifestyle in and of itself rather than a means to improving your life.
Schmemann : Maria, I’ve seen some amazing statistics on the time you spend online, on your tablet, and also on reading books and exercise. You seem to have about 30 hours to your day. Yet you’ve argued that the information diet works like any good diet: You shouldn’t think about denying yourself information, but rather about consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.
Has this worked for you? How do you filter what is good for you?
Maria Popova : Well, I don’t claim to have any sort of universal litmus test for what is valuable for culture at large; I can only speak for myself. It’s sort of odd to me that this personal journey of learning that has been my site and my writing has amassed quite a number of people who have tagged along for the ride. And a little caveat to those statistics: A large portion of that time is spent with analog stuff — mostly books, and a lot of them old, out-of-print books.
Which brings me to the cyborg question. My concern is really not — to Baroness Greenfield’s point — the degree to which technology is being used, but the way in which we use it.
The Web by and large is really well designed to help people find more of what they already know they’re looking for, and really poorly designed to help us discover that which we don’t yet know will interest us and hopefully even change the way we understand the world.
One reason for this is the enormous chronology bias in how the Web is organized. When you think about any content management system or blogging platform, which by the way many mainstream media use as their online presence — be it WordPress or Tumblr, and even Twitter and Facebook timelines — they’re wired for chronology, so that the latest floats to the top, and we infer that this means that the latest is the most meaningful, most relevant, most significant. The older things that could be timeless and timely get buried.
So a lot of what I do is to try to resurface these old things. Actually, in thinking about our conversation today, I came across a beautiful 1945 essay that was published in The Atlantic by a man named Vannevar Bush, who was the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He talks about information overload and all these issues that, by the way, are not at all unique to our time. He envisions a device called the Memex, from “memory” and “index”; he talks about the compression of knowledge, how all of Encyclopedia Britannica can be put in the Memex, and we would use what we would now call metadata and hyperlinks to retrieve different bits of information.
His point is that at the end of the day, all of these associative relations between different pieces of information, how they link to one another, are really in the mind of the user of the Memex, and can never be automated. While we can compress the information, that’s not enough, because you need to be able to consult it.
That’s something I think about a lot, this tendency to conflate information and knowledge. Ultimately, knowledge is an understanding of how different bits of information fit together. There’s an element of correlation and interpretation. While we can automate the retrieving of knowledge, I don’t think we can ever automate the moral end on making sense of that and making sense of ourselves.
Schmemann : Evgeny, in your book, you paint a fairly ominous picture of the Internet as something almost of a Brave New World — a breeding ground, you say, not of activists, but slacktivists — people who think that clicking on a Facebook petition, for example, counts as a political act.
Do you think that technology has taken a dangerous turn?
Evgeny Morozov : I don’t think that any of the trends I’ve been writing about are the product of some inherent logic of technology, of the Internet itself. To a large extent they are the product of a political economy and various market conditions that these platforms operate in.
It just happens that sites like Facebook do want to have you clicking on new headlines and new photos and new news from your friends, in part because the more you click the more they get to learn about you; and the more they get to learn about you the better advertising they can sell.
In that sense, the Internet could be arranged very differently. It doesn’t have to be arranged this way. The combination of public/private funding and platforms we have at the moment makes it more likely that we’ll be clicking rather than, say, reading or getting deeper within one particular link.
As for the political aspect, I didn’t mean to paint a picture that is so dark. As a platform, as a combination of various technologies, the Internet does hold huge promise. Even Facebook can be used by activists for smart and strategic action.
The question is whether it will displace other forms of activism, and whether people will think they’re campaigning for something very important when they are in fact joining online groups that have very little relevance in the political world — and which their governments are actually very happy with. Many authoritarian governments I document in the book are perfectly O.K. with young people expressing discontent online, so long as it doesn’t spill out into the streets.
What I am campaigning against is people who think that somehow social media and Internet platforms can replace that whole process of creating and making and adjusting their strategy. It cannot. We have to be realistic about what these platforms can deliver, and once we are, I think we can use them to our advantage.
Schmemann : You have all spoken of the risk of misusing the new technology. Is not such apprehension about new technology as old as technology itself?
Popova : I think one of the most human tendencies is to want to have a concrete answer and a quantifiable measure of everything. And when we deal with degrees of abstraction, which is what any new technology in essence compels us to do, it can be very uncomfortable.
Not to cite historical materials too much, but it reminds me of another old essay, this by a man named Abraham Flexner in 1939, called “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” He says, basically, that curiosity is what has driven the most important discoveries of science and inventions of technology. Which is something very different from the notion of practical or useful knowledge, which is what we crave. We want a concrete answer to the question, but at the same time it’s this sort of boundless curiosity that has driven most of the great scientists and inventors.
Morozov : It’s true that virtually all new technologies do trigger what sociologists would call moral panics, that there are a lot of people who are concerned with the possible political and social consequences, and that this has been true throughout the ages. So in that sense we are not living through unique or exceptional times.
That said, I don’t think you should take this too far. Surrounded by all of this advanced technology now, we tend to romanticize the past; we tend to say, “Well, a century ago or even 50 years ago, our life was completely technologically unmediated; we didn’t use technology to get things done and we were living in this nice environment where we had to do everything by ourselves.”
This is not true. If you trace the history of mankind, our evolution has been mediated by technology, and without technology it’s not really obvious where we would be. So I think we have always been cyborgs in this sense.
You know, anyone who wears glasses, in one sense or another, is a cyborg. And anyone who relies on technology in daily life to extend their human capacity is a cyborg as well. So I don’t think that there is anything to be feared from the very category of cyborg. We have always been cyborgs and always will be.
The question is, what are some of the areas of our life and of our existence that should not be technologically mediated? Our friendships and our sense of connectedness to other people — perhaps they can be mediated, but they have to be mediated in a very thoughtful and careful manner, because human relations are at stake. Perhaps we do have to be more critical of Facebook, but we have to be very careful not to criticize the whole idea of technological mediation. We only have to set limits on how far this mediation should go, and how exactly it should proceed.
Greenfield : I don’t fear the power of the technology and all the wonderful things it can do — these are irrefutable — but more how it is being used by people. The human mind — this is where I do part company with Evgeny — is not one that we could say has always been a cyborg. There is no evidence for this statement. Niels Bohr, the famous physicist, once admonished a student: “You’re not thinking; you’re just being logical.” I think it actually demeans human cognition to reduce it to computational approaches and mechanistic operations.
I’m worried about how that mind might be sidetracked, corrupted, underdeveloped — whatever word you want to use — by technology.
Human brains are exquisitely evolved to adapt to the environment in which they’re placed. It follows that if the environment is changing in an unprecedented way, then the changes too will be unprecedented. Every hour you spend sitting in front of a screen is an hour not talking to someone, not giving someone a hug, not having the sun on your face. So the fear I have is not with the technology per se, but the way it’s used by the native mind.