In an insightful passage from his book Technopoly, Neil Postman reflecting on the nature of technology and its impact on our thought life concludes:
“New technologies alter the structure of our interest: the things we think about. They alter the character of our symbols: the things we think with. And they alter the nature of community: the arena in which thoughts develop”Neil Postman – Technolopy: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
I recently had a small glimpse and realization of what Neil Postman meant. This small insight was occasioned by observing ants building their nests. Just outside our house is a little ant mound which ants had built over the passed few days. As I watching it I wondered how on earth they coordinate the building of their nest without language and reason. There is no supervisor, or project manager who decides where, when and how to start building. There are probably thousands of ants whose actions must all be aimed at the single task of building the nest.
As I was wondering how they could possibly do it – immediately I thought to myself let me just google it.
It was at that moment I realized how Google has come to shape how I think. You see in the absence of Google, I would have had to sit and think and try to figure it out on my own how they could possibly do it. I would have had to think creatively, use my imagination, reflect and come up with a theory which no doubt would have probably been wrong. But the point is not simply to be right – the end result. The point is the process – the forming of our minds to think independently, to explore ideas, to learn to ask oneself critical questions, and to see the limit of your knowledge.
Having Google short circuits that entire process; knowledge is decoupled from the process of reflecting, using my imagination and memory, trying to find novel connections with my existing concepts and schemas. Embedded in the practice of using Google is the idea then that knowledge is simply the ability to access information. Knowledge is no longer the outcome of a process of sustained reflection. Our reliance on Google and our view of it as a storehouse of facts, can diminish our own capacity to reflect and think creatively.
We tend to think only of the gains which our technologies give us, and fail often to see there are losses – each technology gives but also takes. The hope is always that it gives more than it takes. Given that technology is the water we swim in, and in order for technology to serve our deepest values about what human flourishing consists in, we must do the difficult work of learning to read our technologies, learning see what habits and patterns of thinking it cultivates within us and inclines us towards. Living a life that is not unexamined, that is about knowing thyself, consists in nothing less than that.