This post is a response to the ideas presented by Steve Wheeler in a series of recent blogs that question if we are becoming more or less intelligent as a result of technology.
The arguments against a positive impact of technology on our intelligence generally concern fears about the superficiality of knowledge, and the reduction of knowledge to brief sound bites and images, in an information heavy multi-media environment. Such an environment, it is argued, circumvents the need for any cognitive engagement, replaces depth of knowledge with breadth at the expense of deep and true meaning, and takes away any stimulus or space for critical thinking. This 21st century response to a transition from a written culture to one that is more digital and visual, is strikingly similar to Socrates’ 5th century BC response to the transition from an oral to a written culture. Although logographic and ideographic writing systems had been around for over 2,000 years, the alphabet was a relatively recent invention in 5th Century BC Greece. The invention of the alphabet revolutionised reading and writing in much the same way that digitisation has revolutionised how we communicate today. The alphabet was the first (and only) system of writing that required only a limited number of signs to convey the entire repertoire of sounds in a language. Having only a small number of signs to be learned meant that reading and writing were suddenly much more cognitively efficient and involved a more economical use of memory. Whereas previous writing systems required years and years of teaching and memorising symbols before anyone could actually read, the alphabet meant that people could learn to read much more quickly, and that more people could have access to teachers as the process was not so time consuming and teachers of reading were no longer such a (relatively) rare and expensive elite.
Socrates felt that books would circumvent the work of active critical understanding and produce pupils with a ‘false conceit of wisdom.’ In particular Socrates was concerned that once something was written down, it could not be part of a dialogue; the’ inflexible muteness’ of the ‘dead discourse’ of written speech would be the end of the dialogic process that Socrates believed was as at the heart of education, and essential for the development of morality and virtue in society. Socrates was also concerned about the less stringent requirements that writing placed upon memory and the internalisation of knowledge. He felt that unless knowledge could be committed to memory, it could not be sufficiently well known for the depth of analysis and scrutiny it should be subjected to, through dialogue with a teacher, in order to reveal its underlying assumptions and highest principles. Similarly, dialogue was essential for a moral, virtuous and just society as it provided the means of understanding the extent to which knowledge reflected, or failed to reflect, the deepest values in society, and to know what they were. Socrates final concern was about the uncontrolled spread of literacy and the dangers of access to knowledge without a teacher:
‘’Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally with those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill treated and unfairly abused, it always needs its parents to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.’’ (Phaedrus 275e in Hamilton and Cairns 1961)
Socrates lost the fight against the spread of literacy partly because it was not old enough for him to see and experience the full capacities of written language, but also because, once it has been ‘invented’ or developed, there is no turning back from technological change whether we like it or not
Several points of relevance in relation to current arguments about technology and intelligence follow from looking at Socrates concerns. The relationship between technology and cognitive development is of particular interest. Pinker (1997) notes that there are no genes specific to reading. Whilst children’s developing brains are wired for sound and vision, print is an extra cognitive demand that needs to be ‘bolted on’. Dehaene argues that the reading brain uses evolutionarily older circuitry that is specialised for object recognition, and is able to adapt for the new and ‘unnatural’ task of reading. These older circuits were originally designated not only for vision but also for connecting vision to conceptual and linguistic functions such as linking the recognition of a shape to danger, or a tool or enemy with a word. Wolf (2008:14) notes that:
‘‘Critically, the combination of several innate capacities – for adaptation, for specialisation, and for making new connections – allowed our brain to make new pathways between visual areas and those areas serving cognitive and linguistic processes that are essential to written language.’’
The extent and versatility of our brain to adapt and specialise for reading can be seen in studies that look at the reading brains of Chinese (logographic), Japanese (syllabary and logographic) and English (alphabet) readers. (Wolf 2008:60-69) Here it can be seen that brains are wired and function very differently depending on the specific demands of each writing system. There is no evidence that any one particular system is more effective or efficient than another or that it unduly influences the capacity to think or express ideas. However, there is evidence that if the brain is wired for one particular writing system then it may not be able to adapt so well to another. The point here is that technology significantly influences how our brains develop, function, adapt and specialise. The question is not so much whether technology will make us more or less intelligent, but rather, how will technology redefine and reconstruct our intelligence?
In order to explore this question and its validity a little further, and for the purposes of this contribution to the discussion, I shall take the following definition of intelligence:
‘‘A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—”catching on,” “making sense” of things, or “figuring out” what to do.’ Joint statement by 52 (US) researchers (who began with 52 different definitions!).
The problem with this definition, as with all others, is that a significant part of its meaning is culturally embedded and can look, feel and be different in different cultural, economic and political contexts. It can also look, feel and be different depending upon the perspective of the individual concerned with the reasoning, planning, problem solving and so on. Underpinning all our systems of thought and rationality, our knowledge and concepts, are values, attitudes and beliefs. The philosophical traditions of India, for example, are very different, and have a significantly different influence on approaches to thinking, than philosophical traditions in the UK. (Raju 1992) Even hard sciences are subject to ideological positions and values before the more global processes of knowledge production and validation are undertaken (hermeneutics being one clear example). Technology cannot make us more or less intelligent in any other way than making us more or less able to ‘catch on’, ‘make sense’ and ‘figure out what to’ do with the technology itself. If technology requires us to polarise and think bilaterally in order that our rationality and the construction of binary code can be compatible, then thinking bilaterally will become intelligent and any other kind of thinking will not. If technology fails to support dialogic engagement and the deep analysis of ideas then a morally bankrupt pragmatism is likely to be the ‘intelligent’ way forwards and ethical, ideological or moral considerations will not be part of what constitutes intelligence or intelligent activity.
On one level there is some circularity of thinking involved here that, it could be argued, could lead to an argument in support of the likelihood of singularity, as referred to by Steve Wheeler. I intend to engage in discussion of these ideas in a future blog post. This may be some time as from my perspective, current uses of technology negate any potential efficiencies of time it could make; the opportunity for every man and his dog to require every other breath to be recorded, reviewed, justified and submitted for audit (in binary thinking) has taken over. Has it made me more intelligent? Watch this space.
- Hamilton, E. and Cairns, H. (eds) (1961) The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton University Press.
- Pinker, S. (1997) ‘Foreward’ in McGuiness, D. (1997) Why Our Children Can’t Read – And What We Can Do About It: A scientific revolution in Reading. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Raju, P.T (1992) Philosophical Traditions of India. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers
- Wolf, M (2007) Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Brain and Reading. Icon Books