Smartphones and other gadgets have literally become extensions of our minds and hold out the tantalising promise of never being bored again, but are we sacrificing too much in the process?
Technology pundits, social researchers and even philosophers are now pondering whether society's relentless march towards information overload is stealing rather than augmenting our humanity.
During a talk at the TEDxSydney conference at the weekend, Professor David Chalmers, director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University, argued that gadgets, particularly smartphones, had “become part of our minds”.
'The iPhone is literally part of your mind' ... Professor David Chalmers. Photo: Scott Maxworthy
He said just as we use technology such as prosthetics, canes, cars and bikes to extend our bodies, devices like the iPhone extended our minds.
The task of remembering phone numbers, for instance, had been offloaded to the smartphone, as had spatial navigation thanks to Google Maps.
“In some sense the iPhone is literally becoming part of your mind … the iPhone's memory is basically my memory,” said Professor Chalmers.
Professor David Chalmers during his talk at TEDxSydney. Photo: Fiona Lumsdaine
This had both positive and negative effects. For instance, Professor Chalmers used an example of a blind person who, thanks to a smartphone app capable of reading out colours of a scene captured by its camera, was able to “see sunset for the first time”.
He also cited the ability to “crowdsource” recommendations and ideas from friends through Facebook.
Far from making us stupid, as prominent technology writer Nicholas Carr suggested in a celebrated essay, Google was “actually making us smarter” and “turning us into superheroes of the mind”.
Boredom is good ... Intel corporate anthropologist Geneveieve Bell. Photo: Milena Dekic
“Technology is gradually giving us these super powers, turning us into cognitive super geniuses. The question is, will we use these powers for good or for evil?,” pondered Professor Chalmers.
But he said as smartphones and other gadgets become an unavoidable part of life, we also become more vulnerable to their loss.
“Just say somebody steals my iPhone, you might think that's a form of theft but if I'm right that should actually be reconceived as a really vicious form of assault like getting in my brain and messing with my neurons,” Professor Chalmers said.
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