So which is it?
Smartphones have an incredible impact on how we live and communicate. They also illustrate a popular technology maxim: If it can be done, it will be done. In other words, they’re not going away. They’ll grow smaller and stronger and will burrow into our lives in surprising ways. The basic question: are they making humans better or worse?
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada recently published a paper suggesting that smartphones “supplant thinking”. The researchers suggest that humans are cognitive misers — we conserve our cognitive resources whenever possible. We let other people – or devices – do our thinking for us. We make maximum use of our extended mind. Why use up your brainpower when your extended mind – beyond your brain – can do it for you? (The original Waterloo paper is here. Less technical summaries are here and here).
Though the researchers don’t use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology, there is an interesting correlation to System 1 and System 2. They write that, “…those who think more intuitively and less analytically [i.e. System 1] when given reasoning problems were more likely to rely on their Smartphones (i.e., extended mind) ….” In other words, System 1 thinkers are more likely to offload.
So, we use our phones to offload some of our processing. Is that so bad? We’ve always offloaded work to machines. Thinking is a form of work. Why not offload it and (potentially) reduce our cognitive load and increase our cognitive reserve? We could produce more interesting thoughts if we weren’t tied down with the scut work, couldn’t we?
Clay Shirky was writing in a different context but that’s the essence of his concept of cognitive surplus. Shirky argues that people are increasingly using their free time to produce ideas rather than simply to consume ideas. We’re watching TV less and simultaneously producing more content on the web. Indeed, this website is an example of Shirky’s concept. I produce the website in my spare time. I have more spare time because I’ve offloaded some of my thinking to my extended mind. (Shirky’s book is here).
Shirky assumes that creating is better than consuming. That’s certainly a culturally nuanced assumption, but it’s one that I happen to agree with. If it’s true, we should work to increase the intelligence of the devices that surround us. We can offload more menial tasks and think more creatively and collaboratively. That will help us invent more intelligent devices and expand our extended mind. It’s a virtuous circle.
But will we really think more effectively by offloading work to our extended mind? Or, will we forevermore watch reruns of The Simpsons?
I’m not sure which way we’ll go, but here’s how I’m using my smartphone to improve my life. Like many people, I consult my phone almost compulsively. I’ve taught myself to smile for at least ten seconds each time I do. My phone reminds me to smile. I’m not sure if that’s leading me to higher thinking or not. But it certainly brightens my mood.