Intellectual Technologies Change How We Think

From Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, on how technology shapes our thoughts:

Every technology is an expression of human will. Through our tools, we seek to expand our power and control over our circumstances—over nature, over time and distance, over one another. Our technologies can be divided, roughly, into four categories, according to the way they supplement or amplify our native capacities. One set, which encompasses the plow, the darning needle, and the fighter jet, extends our physical strength, dexterity, or resilience. A second set, which included the microscope, the amplifier, and the Geiger counter, extends the range or sensitivity of our senses. A third group, spanning such technologies as the reservoir, the birth control pill, and the genetically modified corn plant, enables us to reshape nature to better serve our needs or desires.

The map and the clock belong to the fourth category, which might best be called, to borrow a term used in slightly different senses by the social anthropologist Jack Goody and the sociologist Daniel Bell, “intellectual technologies.” These include all the tools we use to extend or support our mental powers—to find and classify information, to formulate and articulate ideas, to share know-how and knowledge, to take measurements and perform calculations, to expand the capacity of our memory. The typewriter is an intellectual technology. So are the abacus and the slide rule, the sextant and the globe, the book and the newspaper, the school and the library, the computer and the Internet. Although the use of any kind of tool can influence our thoughts and perspectives—the plow changed the outlook of the farmer, the microscope opened new worlds of mental exploration for the scientist—it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think. They are our most intimate tools, the ones we use for self-expression, for shaping personal and public identity, and for cultivating relations with others.

What Nietzsche sensed as he typed his words onto the paper clamped in his writing ball—that the tools we used to write, read, and otherwise manipulate information work on our minds even and our minds work with them—is a central theme of intellectual and cultural history. As the stories of the map and the mechanical clock illustrate, intellectual technologies, when they come into popular use, often promote new ways of thinking or extend to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group. Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work. The map and the clock shared a similar ethic. Both placed a new stress on measurement and abstraction, on perceiving and defining forms and process beyond those apparent to the senses.

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