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.
In 1983, when I was a product manager at NBI, we were second only to Wang in the word processing and office automation market. Then along came the personal computer and disrupted Wang, NBI, CPT and every other vendor of dedicated word processing equipment.
I’ve written about this previously as an example of disruptive innovation. But I could also describe it as assimilative innovation. NBI’s products did one thing – word processing — and did it very well. The PC, on the other hand, was multifunctional. It could do many things, including word processing (although not as well as NBI). The multifunction device assimilated and displaced the single function device.
We’ve seen many examples of assimilative innovation. When I bicycled across America, I bought a near-top-of-the-line digital camera to record my adventures. It took great pictures. It still takes great pictures. But I hardly ever use it. My smartphone does a lot of things, including taking great pictures. Though my smartphone’s pictures are not as good as my camera’s, they’re good enough. Additionally, the smartphone is a lot more convenient.
Years ago, the automotive industry produced an odd example of innovation assimilation. American cars had a big hole in the dashboard (fascia) where you could slot in a radio and cassette player. You were supposed to buy the audio equipment from the car manufacturer but consumers quickly figured out that they could get it cheaper from after-market vendors.
So, did the auto manufacturers lower their prices? No way, Instead, they re-designed their dashboards so that the audio equipment came in several pieces that an after-market vendor couldn’t easily mimic. In other words, the manufacturers tired to assimilate the competition.
In this case, it didn’t work. The after-market vendors sued, claiming illegal restraint of trade. The courts agreed and ordered the manufacturers to go back to the big hole in the dashboard. I suspect this was a precedent when Nestlé sued to stop third-party vendors from selling coffee capsules for the popular Nespresso coffee maker. Nestlé lost. The courts ruled that Nestlé had created a platform that allowed for permisionless innovation.
What will be assimilated next? I suspect it’s going to be fitness bands. I wear the Jawbone band on my wrist to keep track of my activity and calories. It’s pretty good and seems to compete well with three or four other fitness bands on the market. The new Apple Watch, however, appears to have similar (or even better) functionality built into it. The Apple Watch is, of course, multi-functional. If history is any guide, the multi-functional and convenient device will displace the single purpose device, even if it doesn’t offer better functionality.
What’s the moral? When you buy a single function device, be aware that it’s likely to be assimilated into a multi-function device in the future. That’s not a bad thing as long as you’re aware of the risk.