“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure,” wrote Dominican friar and moral philosopher, Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, in his brief but powerful volume, The Intellectual Life. Nearly a century ago, Sertillanges recognized the importance of making conscious choices and focusing our efforts in order to be influential.
Yet we often sacrifice this practice to the demands of the moment, settling into old routines and merely drifting through time. We trade conscious choice for the relative safety of going with the flow. It absolves us of responsibility. And it’s much less stressful in the moment.
But as Sertillanges described, great things rarely come through this path. Or as Derek Sivers aptly put it,
“Only dead fish go with the flow.”
Real impacts come from conscious decisions. Decisions to focus our efforts where they’ll have the most impact. And nowhere is this more critical than in dealing with technology.
Burdens and Blessings
“Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.” – Neil Postman, Technopoly
In 1932, Aldous Huxley painted a dystopian future in which everything is controlled for the sake of comfort and “happiness.” As people live out their days in drug-induced contentment, anything that could threaten the stability of society is removed. As one official explains the danger of nonconformity,
“You will see that no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual—and, after all, what is an individual?… Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.”
Over sixty years later, Neil Postman built on this same thought in Technopoly. But instead of a dictatorial society focused on control, his focus was a technology-driven world focused on progress,
“Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.”
We laud new technologies and see every new development as the way of the future. And they may be. But they also come with trade-offs. In our rush to adopt the latest update, we close our eyes to what we’re giving up. We stop seeing the alternatives that are quickly becoming invisible.
Even when it’s our own cognitive abilities.
Are We Recognizing the Trade-offs?
“I think the world can be divided into these two kinds of cultural objects. And the question, of course, is, Can we depend on these objects always being around? In the case of competitive cognitive artifacts, if we cannot, then we should worry, right? Because when they’re taken away, we’ll probably be worse off than we were before.” – David Krakauer
David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute and a wealth of knowledge on complexity science and evolutionary theory, furthers this concern as it relates to our current trajectory for artificial intelligence. And whether we understand the long-term impact behind today’s decisions.
He builds off Donald Norman’s definition of cognitive artifacts as things that “maintain, display or operate upon information in order to serve a representational function,” and considers each to fall within the category of complementary or competitive. Complementary cognitive artifacts improve our ability to perform cognitive tasks and help us to retain this ability without the artifact. Likewise, competitive cognitive artifacts improve our ability while the tool is present, but we’re worse off when we no longer have access to them.
Both improve our abilities. But complementary artifacts build skills, while competitive ones build dependence.
And as the vast majority of new advancements are designed to handle cognitive tasks far better than we can, we stop leveraging our cognitive abilities. We become dependent on our tools. And our own abilities deteriorate through inactivity.
In many ways this is fine. My ability to do long division has suffered from the competing technology of a calculator. Indeed, once calculators became popular, generations of people had to give up their dreams of pursuing a career as a long divisionator.
And my GPS greatly enhances my spatial mapping abilities, but without it I’m now much worse at reading maps and navigating directions. A skill that will only suffer further as we move toward self-driving cars.
Do we recognize all of these costs? Or are we just adopting whatever technology comes out without understanding the trade-offs? As Krakauer discussed with Sam Harris,
“The real discussion we should be having, the imminent and practical debate, is what to do about competitive cognitive artifacts that are already leaving an impression on our brains that is arguably negative.”
As we develop more tools to ease our cognitive burdens, we need to recognize that with every gain, there’s trade-offs. That’s not to say that we need to avoid all technological advances, we just need to recognize the costs of continuing down certain paths. As Krakauer summed up his concerns,
“What I’m concerned about is not inevitable, it’s not deterministic. But unless we choose to assert our individuality and our constructive differences, we will, I think inevitably, become a clone species—not only in terms of the way we look and dress, but the way we reason.”
Recognize We Always Have a Choice.
While this may seem like a recent concern, based on the prevalence of technology in our lives, it really dates back to the start of Western Civilization. In The Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates expresses his concern over the invention of writing and the cost on memory,
“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
It would be easy to dismiss Socrates’ views as ill conceived. Clearly the invention of writing has done more to proliferate wisdom than the trade-off of oral culture. Socrates didn’t see this point because he didn’t recognize how writing could be used to deliver even greater benefit.
In this way, perhaps it’s less important whether a cognitive artifact is complementary or competitive, but in how we choose to use it. Social media may encourage us to develop superficial relationships at the expense of real connections, but it can also be used to forge new connections and stay in touch with people we otherwise wouldn’t.
As new and more powerful technologies become available, these decisions become all the more important. Otherwise, we risk both the potential benefits as well as being blind to the trade-offs.
With each advancement, we have more opportunities than ever before. It would be a terrible shame if we waste those benefits because we can’t effectively manage the trade-offs. Because we fail to make conscious decisions on how we’ll focus our attention.
Develop Your Plan. Make Your Choices.
“There aren’t too many people who are trying to figure out how to budget more time in the day for social media.” – Chad Grills
On a recent issue of The Mission Daily, Chad Grills and Stephanie Postles discussed the top habit to open up new opportunities and develop more agency.
Their recommendation? Create a personal plan for how we’ll each use and adopt new technologies.
In a world where technology occupies the vast majority of our attention, is there any better way to take agency over our lives? Our attention drives our experiences. And as we reflect on our time, we’ll see that the life we led was dictated by what we’ve paid attention to.
We cannot fear science. And we cannot fear progress. But blind acceptance of technological developments is just as naive as blind rejection of them. We need to consider these trade-offs and consciously decide which tools will bring us where we want to go, and which will have the opposite effect.
So ask questions. What do you want to get out of this technology? What will you be giving up as an alternative? Is the benefit worth the cost? And what controls do you need to put in place to limit the trade-offs?
We can make these choices for ourselves. Or we can continue drifting and allowing others to make them for us.
It’s your life. What are you going to choose?