Let's Improve Our Brain First

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Robert Wright wrote a semi-facetious piece in the Times about how technology is gradually networking our cognitive functions on the way ultimately to produce one monster global brain. I found the article quite confused as it tries to make a critical argument against Nick Carr's concerns about the distractive power of technology into a loosely connected positive story about the coalescence of individual cognitive functions into one big brain.

Carr has written extensively on the distractive consequences of the heavy use of screens and other forms of information technology. Recent scientific surveys, particularly on young people (see my own reporting ), bear out the impacts. The Times earlier reported on the problems created in one family by incessant use IT devices. (Also see my related blog.)

Wright notes correctly that information technology has created linkage pathways between people that have never existed before. Arguing that these linkages enable humans to do things that they also have never been able to do (I think he is wrong here), Wright suggests that such technology is evolving in a Darwinian manner just as real living creatures are.

Maybe the essential thing about technological evolution is that it’s not about us. Maybe it’s about something bigger than us — maybe something big and wonderful, maybe something big and spooky, but in any event something really, really big.

Could it be that, in some sense, the point of evolution has been to create these social brains, and maybe even to weave them into a giant, loosely organized planetary brain?

Don’t get me wrong. I join other humans in considering human welfare — and the welfare of one human in particular — very important. But if we’re going to reconcile human flourishing with the march of technology, it might help to understand what technology is marching toward.

I think he has it completely backwards. Humans came first before technology, if only momentarily. Technology has been created to support flourishing, not the other way around. The word, technology, itself comes from a Greek word that refers to a creative act of a maker turning the world into an artifact full of meaning in human terms. There is a certain arrogance in giving supernatural form to something that man created. Wright should know all about this as he is the author of the recent book, The Story of God.

The tale continues: "I do think we ultimately have to embrace a superorganism of some kind — not because it’s inevitable, but because the alternative is worse." Without an all-encompassing technology, Wright says the world will turn into chaos for the lack of a system to coordinate all the people on earth. He has forgotten one terribly important factor here. We already do have such technology, language, and its derivative writing. Whatever the state of the world is today, it is not for lack of a coordinative technology.

While not mentioning this virtually universal tool, he suggests why he might have omitted it. It is not sufficiently efficient (his word) for the needs of "our" modern world. Without it, one cannot do all these critically (my word) important tasks in any hour: "1) check your e-mail and receive key input from a colleague as well as a lunch confirmation from a friend; 2) check Facebook and be led by a friend to an article that bears on your political passions, while also checking out the Web site of a group that harnesses that passion, giving you a channel for activism; 3) and, yes, waste some time reading or watching something frivolous." What on Earth does efficiency have to do with flourishing.

In any case, so what. If this is the argument for the benefits of a single global brain, I am not the least bit convinced. Technology may help the human species "flourish," as Wright writes, but what kind of life is that likely to be. Certainly not the life that Albert Borgmann writes about, or that Wendell Berry, or William Blake, or a myriad of artists and humanists find unique about our species, and that Wright seems not only to miss but obliquely dis.

Wright ends with a reference to a new work about to come out by Kevin Kelly of Wired fame, who writes about this new brain-building technology: “stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves” and asks, “How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?” Maybe we cannot but be stirred, but this in itself does not make what is happening either good or bad for us. This possibility and its consequences in terms of how we deal with the continuing evolution of this technology is missing in this discussion. Without it, this discussion is nothing but a few technophiles' ramblings.

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David M. Carter said:

Another critical point missing from Wright's technologically-supported single human brain theory is that human's do not evolve that fast. How can he, and other technophiles, expect us to evolve this capacity in a few short years when we are still living like paleolithic scavengers. Do you think consumerism and the hoarding behavior necessary for survival in a paleolithic world have anything to do with one another?