Part of the I, ROBOT series
On January 6, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System sent a letter to Apple executives urging greater study into the impact of smart phones on the cognitive capacity and mental health of children, because it thinks there’s considerable evidence that using the devices causes them harm.
They’re not alone. Beginning this fall, France is planning to ban smart phones in all primary and secondary schools.
And yet: personal internet access is arguably the greatest advance in the distribution of knowledge since the invention of writing, comparable to the development of the printing press, the modern university, and the radio. How is it possible that so many people who care so much about education could want that banned from schools?
A case was made not long ago by reporter Eric Andrew-Gee in a long article for the Toronto Globe and Mail, where he provided a catalogue of all the evidence that our smartphones and wearables are making us dumber and worse. We pay more attention to our phones than our environment; social media sites rely on the same neural pathways as drugs and gambling; a number of tech executives who were instrumental in bringing these devices to market are now developing companies and non-profits that address the personal costs of using them — much like the man who stabbed you selling stitches.
The studies are convincing, and the evidence is mounting, that significant smart phone and internet use can cause cognitive decline and warp personalities. But is all that evidence also missing the point?
The Case for Transhuman Nature
Because the transhumanist rebuttal to these facts is not to argue that smartphones aren’t degrading our capacity, as a set of isolated organic systems, to retain facts or concentrate — it’s that the degradation of our organic processes are more than made up for by our new, enhanced, capacity as a kind of cybernetic organism.
So human beings who use smartphones are less likely to retain facts — so what? Because when they’re using their smartphones, they have the ability to call up almost any fact in the world in the flash of an eye.
So people with smartphones pay significantly less attention to the immediate world around them — so what? Through their smartphones, they have access to a massive digital world that offers nearly limitless information and a range of instant services that can affect the physical world.
What are the significant differences between the “humans” we have been and the “cyborgs” we are becoming?
So human biological organisms that use smartphones heavily have less cognitive power for tasks because they’re spending significant amounts of it on their smartphones — so what? They can arguably achieve so much more with the cognition they have because it’s now digitally enhanced.
The net effect, they say, is a plus — as long as you stop measuring human capacity alone and start recognizing that humans-with-smartphones are a whole new category of entity. They are early model cyborgs, and need to be evaluated as a whole (human + internet device) rather than by trying to measure how its technological components are impacting its human components.
Taken on those terms — assuming that there’s some element of truth to this transhuman proposition that cyborg life is fundamentally different, not just a “better” or “worse” version of what we have generally thought of as human – what are the significant differences between the “humans” we have been and the “cyborgs” we are becoming?
Measuring the Measure of “Man”
A major shift that accompanied the rise of transhumanism as a response to technology is the cultural elevation of metrics over storytelling — of the quantitative over the qualitative.
Our culture is in the midst of an almost sexual fetish for “data,” and this is having a significant impact on the way we view our “selves” —as specific individuals, and as human beings. It’s not just all the tech companies insisting that “data” can deliver miracles in every field of human endeavor. It’s also the rise of standardized testing as the major determinant of academic fitness, replacing things like essay questions, oral exams, portfolios, and practical projects.
It’s seen in grade inflation at even elite colleges as the number of diplomas awarded increases sharply while the value of any given diploma as a signifier of actual education drops precipitously. It’s seen in the increasing use of social media metrics to determine personal engagement… even while the actual meaning and relevance of a “like” grows fainter and fainter. It’s seen in a movement literally called “The Quantified Self,” which uses technology to create metrics for every accessible part of life, in the hope that one can find “hacks” for continuous improvement.
It is literally the transformation of self into numbers. If machines can understand us at all, it is this way. We are looking at ourselves as AI would look at us. To the extent that the cyborgs among us are merging with machines, they are becoming more quantitative, proposing that what’s really important about us are not the stories we tell — that in fact those stories are not to be trusted — but that who we really are is reflected in the data.
This implies a very different vision of how life works and what the rational approach to a good life is. And the drive to become cyborgs, to say that our “selves” now include our internet devices, is at the vanguard of the world of metrics. Not just measuring what is easily measurable, but turning those things that aren’t (like happiness) into easily measurable approximations of themselves (your serotonin levels, or your answers to an hourly mood quiz, or the number of selfies you post in which you’re smiling).
The differences between the world of Narrative and the world of Metrics are obvious, but what do those differences imply? What do they suggest about how to live?
Context Counts, But Only So High
I was teaching college students just slightly younger than me back in those strange days when students still felt the need to ask “can I use sources on the internet for my research paper?”
I said “yes,” instituted some citation policies and some advice for identifying legitimate sources (there was no Wikipedia to crib) and sent them off to write papers on one of three topics.
The result was an inadvertent lab experiment: writing on the same topic, the students who used exclusively books and magazines for their research had exactly the same facts in their papers as the students who used exclusively online sources. But the students who used exclusively online sources showed no understanding of which facts were relevant, or why, or how they related to the other facts.
The issue here isn’t that the internet was “wrong” or didn’t have the right information — it absolutely did and it still does. And to be sure, the internet’s culture has advanced significantly since then. But this example clearly illustrates the vital difference between “studying a subject” and “calling up information on-demand.”
Studying a subject, committing its depth and breadth (if not its minute details) to memory, is a Narrative form of knowledge, which is distinct because it provides context. The more context you have for the information, the more you know how the pieces relate to the whole, what’s relevant and why, and have a clear filter for determining whether new information is relevant or true.
Metrics, however, tend to treat information as decontextual. The point is precisely that you don’t have to read a book or an article to find the relevant fact, you just search for it, grab it out of its context, and apply it where it’s needed. You don’t need to get a holistic look at a person’s life to try and make them happier, you can just check their key indices and fix whatever’s broken. You don’t need to have a sense of a student’s interests or history or projects to know how intellectually apt they are — you have a test score for that, and the exact same number can measure two entirely different students just as accurately.
There is a vital difference between “studying a subject” and “calling up information on-demand.”
There is no question — no question — that a quantitative approach to data can process more of it faster, to tremendously useful effect. From that standpoint the question of whether we even need schools and libraries because we have Google is a serious one. But the bigger the data gets, the more decontextualized it has to be, and something important gets lost. School systems that want to ban smart phones aren’t doing it because they object to the information the phones provide… but because in the Narrative view, information without a contextual frame to put it in is nearly worthless.
Which is “better,” which is “smarter,” depends entirely on what you are looking for and what you value — but it seems clear that the movement towards becoming transhuman cyborgs, beginning with our phones and our wearables and our social media, creates momentum towards the decontextualized view of knowledge and the self.
Do Cyborgs “Like” Electric Sheep?
Literally anybody who uses Facebook enough has at some point stared at their list of friends and asked: “Who are these people?”
There are analog equivalents of this experience, but they’re relatively few and hard to come by — you can look at clubs you belong to and say “I don’t know many people here.” You can look at people at an office party and think “I don’t remember most of these people at all.” But to come up with a big list of people who you have approved to be your friends and realize you don’t know most of them? That seems a fundamental, if not paradigmatic, social media phenomenon.
It is even possible — in fact certain — that through social media two people who have never met can not remember each other at all and still be friends. There is no Narrative equivalent to that.
That’s because we’re used to thinking of “friendship” as a Narrative structure — a shared feeling that generally emerges through a shared history. If you consider yourself someone’s friend, there’s always a story there, a “why.” If someone considers themselves your friend, and you don’t feel the same way, there’s an explanation.
The movement towards becoming transhuman cyborgs, beginning with our phones and our wearables and our social media, creates momentum towards the decontextualized view of knowledge and the self.
A Metric approach to friendships, on the other hand, is looking for facts which — as we’ve noted before — are going to be decontextualized. You can measure for “length of friendship,” and “perceived intensity on a scale of 1–10,” but the nature of the connection is ultimately a “yes/no” question, and therefore fundamentally different not just as a description, but as an experience, from a Narrative approach to friendship. And yet something is being described.
The same phenomenon occurs across many domains: it happens with professional ties, with community groups, with interest associations… and it suggests a clear trend. Narrative approaches encourage limited but strong ties, while Metric approaches encourage an ever exponentially increasing number of weak ties.
The Good Life Isn’t Optimized Enough
Is there a difference between “trying to be our best selves” and “upgrading and optimizing” those selves? Writer Alexandra Schwartz thinks so, writing recently in the New Yorker that:
“We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading. There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy; the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year. The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough.”
The self-help industry didn’t start with modern Metrics (the world has always been full of crazy self-help fads) but it loves Metrics as a way of looking at the world. Narrative exists fundamentally to provide insight in a way that allows for ambiguity, even uniqueness, as much as to spur action. Metrics by contrast, require not just decisions but a decision from a limited set of options. Did you get an “A” in history, or a “B”? Confronted with such a question, you can’t say the way you would in a Narrative view that you’re really good with historical biographies but bad with migration patterns — a decision has to be made from the options available. You are not unique and special with some areas of history that you are interested in and some that you are not — you are either an “A” or a B.” To refine this further requires not a better, more accurate, answer, but a separate set of metrics, which will themselves have the same basic limitations.
Narrative approaches encourage limited but strong ties, while Metric approaches encourage an ever exponentially increasing number of weak ties.
Metrics exist not just to describe but to rank and compare — an “A” is better than a “B,” “500” friends is better than “300.” Ranking and comparing is native to Metrics in a way that it is not in a Narrative knowledge (although Narrative can certainly be used to do so), and the act of ranking people or their capacities implicitly carries with it the exhortation to improve.
So it’s not an accident that our cultural mania for quantification has gone hand-in-hand with a mania for self-improvement in which we measure everything in the hope of doing it better. (No other culture has ever come up with a concept like “micro-credentialing.”)
Narrative is comparatively open-ended, while Metrics imply the need for continuous improvement along already established parameters.
We Value What We’re Willing to Be Inconvenienced For
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it gives us a clearer sense now of how humanity’s movement towards transhumanism, towards becoming cyborgs, will be different than what has come before. It will favor a decontextualized existence — which implies rootlessness but also freedom from restraints and convention. It will emphasize an exponentially larger number of ties, but most of them will be significantly weaker. It will trend towards constant measurement and improvement and away from narrative uniqueness — we ourselves will become parts in a mechanism, even be seen as mechanisms, and it is important that parts be interchangeable.
To be sure, a trend is not destiny: people absolutely establish and maintain strong ties online, just as they establish weak ties in person. People absolutely use ebooks and websites to read deeply and gain contextual knowledge, just as they use the indexes of physical books to scan for quick references. Encyclopedias, after all, were historically written on paper. One can be very picky about who one “friends” in social media, taking the time needed to curate carefully. Just because an approach tends towards certain outcomes does not mandate those outcomes.
But it’s no accident that research shows that people tend, on the whole” to “read” physical text and “scan” online text. The clear purpose of a book is to be read, while the clear purpose of a search engine is to search. Developing social ties in a Narrative sense requires the development of a story, even if it’s a weak one, while adding social ties in a Metric sense requires clicking a button — and the button exists to be clicked and your metric outcomes improve the more you click. You personally may feel there’s a downside if you keep clicking “friend,” but the system does not, and that’s not just an aspect any particular social network. It follows from treating “friendship” like a metric which can be optimized.
One can absolutely do things differently, but to do so one needs to swim against the tide. Epistemologies tend to favor certain outcomes. Narrative approaches tend to create a smaller group of stronger ties, and Metric approaches to create a dazzlingly large number of weaker ties. The more cyborg we become, the more our habitual tendencies will be pushed towards a multiplicity of weak ties in a world lacking context.
It’s not destiny, but it’s increasingly likely. If we want to do things differently, we will have to do that deliberately. But simply wanting to do it isn’t enough. We must have a vision of the good, and of what it means for human beings to flourish, that will inspire us to form strong ties instead of weak ones, and learn where we could skim. Not “optimization” but “the good.” A vision of a good life worth being inconvenienced for.
If we do not have a vision of the good life that is worth being inconvenienced for, then we will inevitably do what is most convenient. The road to hell, it seems, is not paved with good intentions but with efficiencies. Repeatedly in this series, the idea has come up from experts that if we want to preserve any aspect of our humanity in the face of the future, that we will need to practice it.
Perhaps we begin our practice of being human by asking ourselves: what inconveniences in life are important enough to you to be worth keeping?