How technology will affect humanity is a topic discussed often in education circles, as well as the supermarket, the subway, at PTA, and almost anywhere people gather. Intelligence Squared U.S. recently sponsored a debate on the statement: Smart Technology Is Making Us Dumb
The debaters who agreed with the statement were Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and Andrew Keen, executive director of FutureCast. Debating against were David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard and Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and VP at Intel Corp. All of the debaters are well-known figures in the technology or “anti-technology world.”
Both sides argued so persuasively that according to a poll of the audience afterwards the debate was declared a tie. The team supporting the statement cited studies showing that people who use technology consistently, experience cognitive overload, and the inability to process real learning. They may stop trying to learn and become dependent on technology. In one study, researchers recommended removing technology from airplane cockpits because it prevented pilots from learning how to fly on their own in crisis situations.
The other side cited that technology has eliminated “the gatekeepers,” largely elite white men who limited access to knowledge. They talked about global access in developing countries and how it has helped in the recent earthquake in Nepal and the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Weinberger said to the opposing team:
…even if you’re right about everything you said, I think it’s undeniable that this is the greatest time in human history to be wanting to know…access to information has never been this free…you don’t have to be at a major university to get access to a wide range. The ability to engage — not just read…not even just to explore, to follow your interests where they go, by following links, and finding people who know things that you don’t…
In many ways, the debaters were talking apples and oranges. Those who argued that tech didn’t make us dumber were talking about it as a tool, something that gives us access to greater communication and information. The side saying it made us dumb were arguing that it doesn’t matter, because after we use it for a while we won’t know what to do with that access.
The reality is we need both lines of thinking because technology is here to stay. The train has left the station, so to speak. If you don’t get on, you’ll be left behind. But we need to be more than passive passengers. We need to figure out how to control it, how to make it go where we want it to go, and how to stop it if need be.
We can’t let technology’s speed, openness, and potential seduce us into thinking that everything to do with it is good for us. It is our responsibility to continue the debate, to examine technology’s pros and cons, and make sure that our humanity prevails so that generations of the 21st century have a better chance of learning to use rather than be used by technology.