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These days, most news about digital technologies seem to highlight their downsides: how they’re addictive, driving anxiety, compromising privacy, undermining democracy, etc.
This isn’t surprising. Commercial news competes for your attention, and negative pieces are more engaging. (“If it bleeds, it leads.”) News media also have a short-term bias and an almost exclusive focus on exceptional events. And traditional news media have reasons to be down on tech, since it’s eroded their economic and social influence.
Which is to say, structural factors might foster negative coverage. But, of course, this doesn’t diminish the fact that there are indeed downsides. Most of these systems are relatively new and open to abuse, intentionally or not. We still don’t know how to use them properly — and perhaps even what that might mean.
Like all technologies, digital has pros and cons. But we hear more about the negatives.
What are the positives? It’s a truism to say more people have faster access to more information more cheaply than ever before. But it’s true: systems like Google Maps, Wikipedia, and YouTube have improved our lives. That said, I’m more interested in another angle: how digital helps us think differently — and, potentially, better.
Most news coverage focuses on digital as communications media. But digital also enables new ways of thinking and making. (More precisely: new ways of thinking through making.) Connected digital tools are shared nervous system prosthetics; they extend our minds much like eyeglasses extend our sight.
Today, we take eyeglasses for granted, but they’re an important innovation. In his essay Dreaming of the Middle Ages, Umberto Eco noted:
eyeglasses were a medieval invention, as important as the mechanical loom or the steam engine. At that time, an intellectual who became farsighted at the age of forty (bear in mind the difficulty of reading unreadable manuscripts by torchlight in dark rooms beneath shadowy vaults) was unable to produce actively after the age of fifty. With the introduction of eyeglasses intellectual productivity increased enormously and the following centuries could better exploit these human resources.
Digital tools for thought aren’t analogous merely to eyeglasses. Rather, they’re like a powerful telescope: not just a way to see better, but to probe new and unfamiliar domains. Some of what we discover might reframe our understanding of ourselves, as it did after Galileo pointed his instruments at the sky.
Effective use of new tools elicits and demands new ways of being. Growing into them takes time: culture doesn’t change on a flip, and there’s often upheaval and angst as old patterns give way. And, of course, nothing says new tech must be used for good. There’s no shortage of sociopaths and grifters ready to get in on the action. So vigilance and mindfulness are in order.
That said, it’s an exciting time to work in this space. Those of us designing digital information systems enable new human abilities. It’s on us to steer such systems toward worthwhile ends.