Are Computers Changing Us?

Fourth RevolutionI recently read the The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality by Luciano Floridi. He is a leading figure in modern philosophy and in this book he looks at how our relationship with information technology is changing us. Floridi believes that mankind in the midst of profound change due to our interactions and immersion in computer technology.

He thinks that information technology is the fourth scientific breakthrough in our history that has fundamentally changed the way that we see ourselves in relation to the universe. The first transformational scientific breakthrough was when Copernicus shook mankind out of the belief that we were the center of the universe. The second was when Darwin showed mankind that it was not the center of the animal kingdom but had evolved alongside and was related to all other life on earth. The third revolution started when Freud showed us that we are not even transparent to ourselves and that we have an unconscious side that is not under our direct control. The fourth big change in our perception of our role in the universe has come through the development of computers and information technology. Our relationship with computers and data has shown mankind that people are not disconnected and individual agents, but instead with the web and computer technology we have become an integral part of the global environment.

He labels any technology that enables the transmission of information as an ICT (Information and Communication technology). The first ICT was writing, but we now have become inundated by ICTs such as the Internet of Things, Web 2.0, the semantic web, cloud computing, smartphone apps, augmented reality, artificial companions, driverless cars, wearble tech, virtual learning, social media and touch screens. ICTs are changing so rapidly that these ICTs will quickly become obsolete and will be replaced by many more that we can’t even imagine. Increasing computer power, smaller chip sizes and ways to handle big data mean that mankind is headed for a time when technology is indispensable to our lives, and will be integrated into our lives.

His most surprising conclusion is that this new technology and our interface with it is fundamentally changing us as people. I have recently read some literature about childhood development that corroborates this concept, in that kids who are immersed in advanced technology from birth develop differently than those before them. They literally develop different neural pathways and different brain characteristics than historical mankind. He thinks we are entering an age of not only new technology, but of a new mankind.

Floridi argues that the boundaries between life online and life offline are blurring and that our kids will always be online, even if not physically connected to a computer. We already see the beginning of this in that our roles in social networks and other online activities now don’t rely on us always being actively there. As computers become more and more a part of our we clearly will always be connected. Floridi labels this new phenomenon ‘onlife’.

Our onlife now defines a lot of our daily activities – how we shop, learn, care for our health, get entertainment, relate to other people. It affects the way we interface with the realms of law, politics, religion and finance. It even has changed the way we wage war. Floridi says that what we are experiencing as a society is more than us just using newer technologies and that the real significance is how these technologies are changing us. He says that ICTs are transforming the way that we interface with the world.

I found this book fascinating. It brings a way to understand a lot of the things we see in modern life. For instance, it gives is a way to understand why young kids seem to think differently than we do. If Floridi is right then the world is at a crucial point in its history. We still have a tiny number of primitive people in the planet that are living in pre-history. But most of the people in the planet are living in history, that is, they are from a mindset that we have had for thousands of years since the advent of writing and other forms of communication. But we also now have a generation of people who are moving into hyper-history and are becoming part of the infosphere. Children growing up in the infosphere and particularly their children will think differently than the rest of mankind. People of my generation are users of technology, but this next mankind is immersed in technology and is a part of that technology. It’s going to be interesting to see how the world deals with a generation that is fundamentally different than the rest of mankind.

3 thoughts on “Are Computers Changing Us?

  1. Dear Doug: I read this piece, and reread it again, and pondered the title… “Are Computers Changing Us?” The answer is a qualified yes. I think back to the way things were “in the olden days”. Research on a topic was done methodically and painstakingly slow. It took severe perseverance to find the total facts, to find the whole story, on a given topic. Ironically, one of the best examples of this is the movie, “All the President’s Men”. Messrs. Bernstein and Woodward research their story the old fashioned way – fact by fact, piece by piece. first of all, the changes from computers are the “unintended beneficiaries” of the changes wrought on humanity by the advent of television. TV watching has set a whole lot of bad precedents: on education, and on our children’s ability to learn; on storytelling, and the method and timeliness in which they are told; and on popular culture, but, well, the people get what they deserve!! TV is probably to blame for our collective shorter attention spans, our distain for details, and preference for more high-level summaries, and for more sloppy editorial opinions that masquerade as “objective” news. TV (and especially TV News) has changed as the entertainment and media industries have based their success on the almighty ratings race — Quality of Programming has morphed into Popularity of Programming. “Feh”. Today, there is an incredible amount of information available at our fingertips. As I was completing my Masters degree in Telecom at GWU, I found that researching topics in the library — while feeling right for me — just was a colossal waste of time. I could find more information faster through online sources, than at Gelman Library. And that was the mid-1990s! Today’s computers allow airplane engines to report problems to the mechanics even while the plane is flying. Today’s computers allow the central air systems in our homes to set themselves, and make changes to separate rooms on a real-time basis. Today’s computers allow our telephone systems to carry more than just straight voice or fax… but also allow virtual on-net computer systems to connect from remote offices. As I recently noted to a former colleague of our days at CellularONE, Radio Shack, an electronics store chain which has ebbed and flowed through countless high-technology sales cycles (from radios and TVs in the 20th Century, to cell phones and computers into the 21st Century), has had an incredibly hard time morphing itself into the Internet Age. With all of the past high-tech waves, the customer still had to trudge into a store to complete a sales/service transaction. With the Internet Age, almost everything can be transacted online, with no need for the presence of a store. Therein lies the biggest impact of Computers… we do not need to go to the store. Happy Thanksgiving, buddy!!

    R

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  2. I had gotten a request to provide cites for any studies that discuss the issue of computers changing the way our minds work. I apologize, but I accidently deleted the comment.

    I’ve read articles about the topic but did not bookmark them. I wish I could cite studies, because I am certain that there are hundreds of studies of the topic. But unfortunately today academic studies hide behind paywalls. I am one of those who would read study reports all of the time if they were available to the general public. I call this the shave of the scientific community that they have let a handful of companies kidnap and hold ransom the results of scientific research. We live in a world where we complain that the general public doesn’t understand science, and yet we go out of our way to hide the results of our scientific research. Only a few percent of such studies ever get cited in articles written for laypeople, and so most of what is studied is hidden from the masses.

    Floridi’s book did provide some such cites, so you’ll just have to read the book!

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