All tools are extensions of a human capability.
A hammer gives power and precision to a strike. A bicycle speeds your journey. Writing records your thoughts, notes, and ideas.
By augmenting our abilities, we change the way we perceive the world. We expand our possibilities, and this alters the way we think and act.
In the words of Marshall McLuhan:
If we follow that analogy, the computer is an extension of the brain. Put more plainly, the computer is a tool that helps us to think, generate ideas, and augment our intellect.
This is true for us as individuals, and as a society. Imagine if we could collaboratively solve complex global problems and maybe bring humanity to a new level of consciousness.
In other words, computers have the potential to fundamentally amplify the way we think and solve complex problems. And over generations, they could raise our collective intelligence.
It’s a powerful thought.
I would put the computer right next to major inventions that have transformed society, and ushered in a new era, like the wheel or the printing press.
Here’s the catch though.
The printing press has generated radical and substantive thoughts on a social, economic, political, and even philosophical level. Computer technology hasn’t come close. The printing press transformed the Middle Ages into a scientific society, not just by making books more available, but by changing the thought patterns of those who learned to read. The changes in our society brought about by computer technology over the past 50 years pale in comparison. We have made computers in all shapes and sizes, but we’re still far away from generating new thoughts or breaking up old thought patterns.
And looking at the current state of the world, the computer hasn’t really helped bring out the best in humanity.
When people use digital devices, they have to adjust to the limitations of the computer. People share rather than collaborate, consume rather than produce, follow instructions rather than experiment, and search rather than think.
Do the programs you use most often really amplify your intellect? Do they help you collaborate effectively? Do they change the way you think, or approach complex problems? Do they help you become a better human? Do computers actually raise our collective intelligence?
And aren’t sharing, consuming, following, and searching the core business models of the biggest tech companies?
Computers have the unique potential to extend and amplify our brain, our thinking, and our reasoning. But if we aren’t using computers like that, we are amputating our brains instead of extending them.
If we want to advance as a society, I see three fundamental areas which need urgent change: thought, collaboration, and augmentation.
The computer as a tool to improve thought: With the computerization of businesses, we have gone from “Don’t make me think” to “Can you do the thinking for me”. We expect the computer to do all the work for us without knowing what we actually want from it. We use computers to get an easy solution rather than the right solution.
The computer as a tool to improve collaboration: We emphasize short-term competition over long-term collaboration. We think in terms of making the most money, not benefits to society. Most devices and platforms are walled gardens, with no easy way to transfer information between them. More importantly, computers are designed with a single user in mind: mirroring a display remotely doesn’t magically create a collaborative environment.
The computer as a tool to improve augmentation: When we think about making humans smarter, we immediately think about artificial intelligence: let’s make computers really intelligent so we don’t have to do anything anymore. But by doing that we forget about augmenting our own intelligence — IA instead of AI. We should make humans smarter, so we can create better tools for us and continue our co-evolution.
It’s not too late to use computers to augment our collective intellect. Let’s not allow one of our greatest inventions to go to waste.
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