How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better

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Photo: Swansea Photographer/Flickr.

Blame it on the apps. When technology isn't distracting us from driving (causing accidents — or at least some unnerving swerving), it's pulling our attention away from work, making us less productive. Smartphone games steal time from our families, and apps suck our downtime into a black hole of "Wait, what time is it?"

We are getting dumber and less compassionate because we are using our phones more than our brains, right? So assert writers like Nick Carr, Jaron Lanier and others. In response, we are planning phone-free vacations and doing weekend tech detoxes. But what if all that thinking about the evils of tech is just wrong — or at least overblown?

In "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better," author Clive Thompson asserts that as technology gets smarter, so are we — it is a net gain. Not that our current tools are perfect: "The arguments about the dangers of tech are about consumption. Are we too distracted to be able to focus? I actually agree with some of [those arguments]. Our tools really have been pecking at us like ducks and we have to get away from that. But my book is looking at something different — what it means for the individual to express their thoughts and think socially with other people. To bounce ideas ideas off of other people more easily and to solve problems with other people. I found those trends to be very powerful and I was convinced that this was a net boon for most people's everyday thoughts," he says on the TechCrunch video below.

Thompson asserts that oftentimes, technology just picks up on already-existent human behavior and expands it. Is Google making it hard for us to remember things? Since we don't need to bother recalling facts because we can look them up so easily, our memories have been deteriorating, right? Well, maybe not. We've always been social thinkers, Thompson says, and our transactive memories are part of being human, meaning we ask our friends or colleagues for help all the time in remembering stuff. We recognize that "we're good and expert in certain areas and [our friends] are good in others. We're collectively smarter when we are with other people. Google just means we are just asking more people," but not fundamentally changing how we think — or remembering.

And there are advantages to technology, beyond the obvious fun and usefulness of being able to videochat with folks on the opposite side of the globe. One great example is what Thompson calls photoliteracy; in the video below, he points out how it used to be that manipulating photos was the domain of only the very wealthy and powerful. That has changed (even in just the last 20 years), as Photoshop and other image-manipulation programs have become mainstream, and we've seen not only plenty of great art and some humor (75 percent cat GIFs, but still), but also a decoupling of power and image faking. He uses the example of Iran claiming a missile launch, in which a photo was run that was later proven to have been Photoshopped (which was obvious to many expert and amateur graphic designers since the technology is so widely available now). Attempts at fooling people are plentiful — but we are all more savvy. In short: When the power of fakery lies in all of our hands, we are less likely to be faked-out.

And, to be fair, there are now apps to help you do any number of things, including focus, and meditation (I've tried them, and they work!). So where it creates legitimate problems, technology is creating solutions too.

What do you think? Is tech a net-positive for people?