The case that man and technology are seamlessly intertwined was made when none other than Plato lamented that the introduction of writing and its widespread use “…will implant forgetfulness in [the souls of men]; 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.”
A Financial Times article on Cerebral Circuitry, this morning, laid some pretty hefty charges about the use of social media networks and connective devices that closely echo Plato’s assumption that writing would create “…men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.”
To assume that social media, an always-on lifestyle, a multiplicity of devices and screens and the constant flow of information that we now experience as the web has no effect is to lie to ourselves. We possess brains that are designed to latch onto technology and seek more technology to latch onto in an endlessly recursive cycle that makes us co-creationists of our own evolution. That should perhaps be the first hint to the reason we are here.
From the moment we picked up a rock and launched it at a target we also launched ourselves upon a path where our inherent abilities are in a constant flux with the development of our external capacities. This cuts across everything we do. Our ‘logical’ drive to seek peace is inseparable from our capability to unleash a self-destructive, nuclear holocaust. Our ability to be ‘nice’ is closely aligned to our own sense of empowerment through technology.
The world we inhabit is not independent of what’s inside our heads. Compartmentalization, cubicles and faceless high-rise apartment blocks cropped up in the 60s and 70s as the Cold War and our fear of each other reached the point of paranoia. Open-plan offices, better communication skills and the transition to urban lifestyle zones were the result of the easing of tension and fear as we realized that the ‘enemy’ was more like us than we cared to think about.
The cliché desire to “want to change the world” is frequently an externalization of the misunderstood need to first change ourselves. The point of all this is that social media, our hyper-connected world, the changes made to the wiring of our brains as we use Google search as an augmentation to our Transactive Memory are all part of what we want to achieve internally, expressed as a complex cause-and-effect external drive for progress.
Every step of our development has historically been driven by information. Who has it, who wants it and who controls it has been the underlying dynamic powering some of the most significant developments in our history.
By degrees, we have managed to go from a world where information was controlled by the very few who stood over the many to one where we are in a constant flow of information and the challenge has become to find ways to create meaning and meaningfulness out of it.
This, again, is no accident.
In our days we have seen social media being used to challenge ideological beliefs, overturn political systems, challenge the rule of law and the power of governments and force us to come face to face with the inadequacies of the institutions we had hoped would help us achieve our goals of a ‘better’ world.
This is not to say that it is a panacea for all ills. It is yet another tool in our long history of tool making. How we use it. How we avoid its pitfalls is what will define our success, as a species. Our ability to generate, distribute, access and process information is the limiting factor of how fast we get from the present we are in to the future we imagine. If social media and search technology is rewiring our brains it is changing the way we connect with and interact with the world.
The connection is not always easy to see but in evolutionary terms we are actively engaged in a process that is redefining us as a species and is re-shaping the societies we live in.
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