In the recent past, humankind has taken exponential leaps in terms of technological advancements. But what is even more fascinating is that changing technology could lead to a changing cognition.
The human body now has new possibilities of action. New media is also altering the way we express our ideas and is enabling us to interact with society and the environment in a unique manner.
Much like language -- another cognitive tool -- digital technology can have profound effects on how we think and encode and communicate information. Instances like that of Nietzsche, whose writing style changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style because of the introduction of typewriters, show how new gadgets can have an effect on our thinking styles.
In fact, as Ong Walter in his book Orality and Literacy demonstrated, oral and later written language have affected and at places very strongly influenced our cognition.
Here are possible ways in which new media could already be altering the way in which we build our experiences!
1. ALTERED SENSE OF LOCATION
Building on one of the latest theories of cognition -- embodied cognition -- which emphasizes that cognition/the mind is strongly bound to the body, and not just brain, Andy Clark in his book Natural-Born Cyborgs talks about the effects of technology. In this context, he argues that today's technology allows us to act and influence things beyond our immediate physical location. When you see someone in a crowded bus or train talking on a mobile phone, where do you think they are? Though physically they are present in the bus/train, they are interacting or engaging in a completely different location. This is what he calls an altered sense of location. The notions of proximity and distance are no longer a measure of how far something is -- but distance is where there is no action. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once commented, "My body is wherever there is action to be done". No wonder we see kids sucked into the virtual worlds of video games, completely disengaged from their immediate environments!
There is a huge change in the way we store and access information these days. As psychologist Betsy Sparrow says, the habit of remembering things is slowly evolving into the habit of "looking up" things at the right places. When we want to know about something these days, we go straight to Google.
3. SHIFT IN LEARNING STYLES
Neuroscientist David Eagleman in this interview states:
" We are in the middle of a generational shift in terms of the learning style. The way that the things were traditionally being taught has to do with just-in-case knowledge. Teachers downloaded everything to us, just in case we ever need to know. But the new generation is all about just-in-time knowledge. As soon as they need to know how to build an electronic circuit, than they look it up (on the internet). Knowledge sticks best when what you learn is in context with your curiosity as it becomes more relevant and hence engaging."
Digital technology precisely facilitates this shift in learning style.
As explained by Harnad and Dror in their book on Distributed Cognition, in a common real-life conversation, speaking has always been preferred to writing, because, we are biologically optimized to speaking speed (I prefer to speak as soon as I think). Moreover, the turnaround time for delivery of a written interaction (traditionally, a letter) is slower than the conversation speed. However, recent technology (email threads and texts) has accelerated written interactions closer to the speed of thought. Web-based threads, hashtags, instant text messages etc have increased the power of this interaction further, distributing it globally and instantaneously. This new found interactivity is turning us into a global village.
5. A NEW SCALE OF COLLECTIVE THINKING
Usually, the ideas that people have are shaped by their experiences. The advent of social media has opened up new ways for people with similar interests to find, share and talk about news. Through new media, the magnitude of collective thinking has risen to a new scale. This, however, comes with a social danger of ideas or opinions getting biased to that of the majority. Often, we share and follow ideas and people that we like and identify with; we prefer less exposure to those that are different. This in turn validates and reinforces the views and opinions we already hold. There is no scope to challenge one's own views – our interactions act as echo chambers of affirmation. Thus, as noted in this article, this tribalism which existed for as long as humankind, gets amplified manifold with social media. The ensuing biased ideas and opinions could risk the diversity of thinking. And very soon, this could have serious influence on real life exercises (eg. elections).
Image Courtesy: Jambaroo
6. COLLAPSE OF LANGUAGE DIVERSITY
Language is a culturally devised tool of communication. It has a strong impact on the way we experience, think and thus our mental states. Today's globalization driven by digital technology is making communication increasingly multimodal. This has an immense homogenizing force, and could eventually lead to a collapse of language diversity. In fact, human linguistic diversity has already started contracting dramatically. This book states that "a staggering 90 per cent of the world's presently spoken languages are on the verge of extinction."
Dexterity of thumb: A Warwick University study showed that among the younger generation, thumbs have become more agile than fingers, due to extensive use of electronic gadgets.
Changing body clocks: Increasingly, we are surrounded by light from tech gadgets. This in turn has an effect on the body clock (circadian rhythms), resulting in a changing of sleep patterns. For example, the blue light emitted by electronic devices (like phones, televisions and tablets) gives false light cues thereby upsetting the natural sleep mechanism.
Processing abilities: There are now various studies showing the effects on cognition from playing video games and similar interactions with digital technology. For example, Rosser and his team have found a significant drop in the errors in surgeries performed by laparoscopic surgeons who played video games regularly. Another study showed an improvement in visual-motor control in people playing action video games, suggesting that such activities can be useful training tools for skills such as driving.
Of course, these studies are by no means conclusive and we are not saying that playing video games always leads to positive outcomes! We only want to point at how digital technology influences our fundamental cognitive abilities.
Ultimately, all the above listed effects show how the digital technology that we shaped is now shaping us biologically, physically, cognitively and socially.