Technocognition

Technology has a profound effect on our minds, on the way we think and the way we behave. Actually there's an argument that technology in recent human evolution is a factor as significant as any environmental pressure.

Consider fire. We cook our food, which denatures the proteins it contains. Those proteins are then more easily digested - allowing you to gain more nutrition per mouthful of food. There's a high school science experiment that compares a cooked and uncooked carrot in pepsin that highlights this. Cooking is how our species evolved more efficient digestion. Invention is a function of biology.

If technology can alter the efficiency of our diet, then it stands to reason that it can alter the efficiency of our minds as well. Language is probably the best example.

We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.
— Oliver Sacks

When we think, and process thoughts that exist entirely in our minds, thoughts that we may never even intend to share or communicate to another individual, we do so in our native language. Our reasoned thoughts, the ones that occupy our conscious mind at the very least, are in English, or Spanish, or Urdu, generally whichever language you are most comfortable and most fluent in. This is highlighted when for some reason an individual does not develop language skills in the 'normal' way. Some studies suggest that individuals that are born deaf develop different methods of processing concepts where the rest of us would cognitively identify a mentally 'spoken' word. Some studies have also shown that individuals whom hear 'voices' due to mental illness also have a difficult time recognising their own spoken voice - those 'voices' may be their own mental voice that has become in some way disconnected. The development of human intelligence also indicates a trend; as language has gotten more sophisticated so have our minds.

The technology of language is part of the fundamental, evolutionary development of thought itself.

Years ago I watched a documentary (that I have attempted to identify but been unable to track down) about the effects of education on what we might consider to be 'less advanced' communities. One of these communities, that I suspect was the Akha people, has traditionally possessed no written language. As the children of the tribe went away to get modern educations, the tribe began to lose it's memory.

This people's history was one of a purely oral tradition, memories were verbally recounted for generation after generation. When their children learned to write, they learned to enhance their memory with technology. In every way but one writing is superior; not subject to error once recorded, not subject to embellishment without being altered, robust and essentially permanent, it lacks only the charm of a lovingly recounted story - reading has not the same quality. The elder being interviewed regretted the loss of this oral history, and recognised the change in the memory of younger generations while also understanding the benefits and need for writing in their changing culture.

When we offload the overhead for a mental faculty to a technological aid, aren't we just freeing up our mind for other tasks and lending the benefits of our minds to anyone who has access to that technology? Writing is the democratisation of intelligence.

So now we have access to the internet, instant communications and potentially almost all of human knowledge sat in our pockets. That communication can take a number of forms from simple written messages to video conferencing, and we're able to choose what method suits us best at any given time. The dawn of texting has given rise to concerns about the nature of modern communication much as e-mail changed the nature of the written letter a couple of decades ago.

Are smartphones altering how we communicate? Yes.
Is communication losing some of the qualities we remember (and love)? Yes.
Is it gaining new qualities of equal or additional benefit? Almost certainly yes.

This isn't a modern curse - it's the very nature of human progress. What we have the opportunity to do is guide the nature and the ethics of technology in ways that we could never influence the Darwinian evolution of our own species.