Friday, January 14, 2011

This is Your Culture on Multi-Tasking

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows. Plato
People have been fretting about the impact of technology on the human mind (and soul) for at least a couple thousand years. The latest version is a controversy about the psychological impact of multi-tasking and computer gaming. A stream of books, blog posts, articles and television reports have used preliminary research to jump to a variety of conclusions ranging from fried teen brains to enhanced human potential.

It seems to me that attempts to predict the overall impact of any technological change on the human condition are inherently flawed. We can't foresee the interconnected web of changes that will emerge as human consciousness becomes increasingly immersed in a technologically augmented and pervasively net-connected environment. I'm not talking about some sort of radical Matrix-level jacked-in trans-humanism. Just the presence of smart phones in pockets will topple industries and hasten new ones to emerge. And around the corner additions like the augmented reality demoing on Ted Talks will lead us even further into the cultural unknown.

I don't know whether Plato was right or wrong. It could be that some essential aspect of humanity was lost in the transition from an oral to a written culture. The coming changes will likely offer gifts and demand sacrifices. But short of some sort of global cataclysm that sends us back to the stone age, the changes that will emerge from our current wave of technological advancement will be just as inevitable, profound and unpredictable as those before it.

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