Is technology making us smarter or dumber?

Tuesday 1 November, 7.30pm until 9.00pm, Friends' Meeting House, Ship Street, Brighton BN1 1AF

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

We have always had a complex relationship with technology. There are perennial claims that it may come to dominate us, or in some way undermine human values. In the 5th century BC, Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus contained an early critique of the technology of writing at the time of its widespread adoption: Socrates voices concerns that writing will undermine human knowledge and authority and will ultimately be destructive to the Athenian polis. We find echoes of this in some of the responses to contemporary media technologies from Wikipedia to Google to Facebook. Some suggest our dependence on a range of digital ‘cognitive extension technologies’, are dumbing down culture, or even changing the nature of human consciousness.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has argued Facebook and related technologies are in danger of undermining children´s abilities to relate to each in a basic face-to-face manner, though these claims have been fiercely contested. Professor Sherry Turkle, author of the influential book Alone Together has suggested our ‘pathological’ addiction to social media is making us ‘less human’. Others, such as Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and novelist Zadie Smith argue it’s ‘flattening us out’, turning us into two-dimensional, dumbed-down, emotionally illiterate consumers.

Yet others believe human intelligence - rather being the simple outcome of evolution on a Pleistocene savannah - is always wrapped up with our use of technology. Our minds are not in the normal sense natural, or fixed. We may indeed think differently from our ancestors before telephones, aeroplanes, pharmacology; everything from the wheel to the locomotive has undoubtedly influenced our social relations and indeed our idea of ourselves as humans. So if human intelligence has always been forged in a relation to technology, is there really anything so special about the new technologies from a cognitive standpoint? Or, do our fears about the cognitive implications of the Web 2.0 say more about today’s cultural climate of determinism and pessimism about the future and a loss of faith in humanity? What has caused so many to view the internet and mobile technology so pessimistically?

Jamie Bartlett
director, Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos; author, The New Face of Digital Populism; co-author, #Intelligence

Phil Booth
coordinator, medConfidential

Dr Robert Clowes
chair, Mind & Cognition Group, Nova Institute of Philosophy, Lisbon University; chair, Lisbon Salon

Nick Pickles
director, Big Brother Watch; former Conservative parliamentary candidate

Patrick Hayes
director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

Produced by
Dr Robert Clowes chair, Mind & Cognition Group, Nova Institute of Philosophy, Lisbon University; chair, Lisbon Salon
Recommended readings
Facebook’s impact on the brain

Findings that parts of the brain can indeed be restructured rapidly by learning new tasks is nothing new.

Rob Clowes, Independent, 1 November 2011

Electric selves?

The social web: Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and the host of other technologies that invite us to connect to each other through a variety of internet-based interfaces seem to be technologies that provoke existential questions. Who are we? What are we? Where are we going?

Rob Clowes, Culture Wars, 31 October 2011

Truth, lies and the internet

Truth, Lies and the Internet examines the ability of young people in Britain to critically evaluate information they consume online. The report reviews current literature on the subject, and presents a new poll of over 500 teachers. It finds that the web is fundamental to pupils’ school lives but many are not careful, discerning users of the internet.

Jamie Bartlett, Carl Miller, Demos, 29 September 2011

The new overlords

Man and technology are evolving together in radical new ways

Economist, 12 March 2011

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

What the Internet is doing to our brains

Nicholas Carr, The Atlantic, August 2008

Session partners