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Is technology making us smarter or dumber?

What has caused so many to view the internet and mobile technology so pessimistically?

We have always had a complex relationship with technology. There are perennial claims that it may come to dominate us, or in some way undermine human values. In the 5th century BC, Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus contained an early critique of the technology of writing at the time of its widespread adoption: Socrates voices concerns that writing will undermine human knowledge and authority and will ultimately be destructive to the Athenian polis. We find echoes of this in some of the responses to contemporary media technologies from Wikipedia to Google to Facebook. Some suggest our dependence on a range of digital ‘cognitive extension technologies’, are dumbing down culture, or even changing the nature of human consciousness.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has argued Facebook and related technologies are in danger of undermining children´s abilities to relate to each in a basic face-to-face manner, though these claims have been fiercely contested. Professor Sherry Turkle, author of the influential book Alone Together has suggested our ‘pathological’ addiction to social media is making us ‘less human’. Others, such as Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and novelist Zadie Smith argue it’s ‘flattening us out’, turning us into two-dimensional, dumbed-down, emotionally illiterate consumers.

Yet others believe human intelligence - rather being the simple outcome of evolution on a Pleistocene savannah - is always wrapped up with our use of technology. Our minds are not in the normal sense natural, or fixed. We may indeed think differently from our ancestors before telephones, aeroplanes, pharmacology; everything from the wheel to the locomotive has undoubtedly influenced our social relations and indeed our idea of ourselves as humans. So if human intelligence has always been forged in a relation to technology, is there really anything so special about the new technologies from a cognitive standpoint? Or, do our fears about the cognitive implications of the Web 2.0 say more about today’s cultural climate of determinism and pessimism about the future and a loss of faith in humanity? What has caused so many to view the internet and mobile technology so pessimistically?


Jamie Bartlett | talks | www
Phil Booth | talks
Robert Clowes | talks
Patrick Hayes | talks | www


Date and Time:

1 November 2011 at 7:30 pm


1 hour 30 minutes



Friends' Meeting House
Ship Street

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Institute of Ideas
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