History teaches us that progress is at the very heart of human nature and society. Progress may not always preset itself as linear, it may be cyclical or even - if we subscribe to the theories of Hegel or Marx - dialectical, yet society, we are taught, always moves forward – in science, in philosophy, in liberty, in modernity etc.
Technology is certainly something that we witness progress in and in ways more accelerated than most. And of course technology is the agent of change in history – from the plow, to the steam engine, to the camera to the computer.
But are there ways and means in which technology can stand in the way of the progress and the evolution of mankind?
It has been a long held opinion of mine that certain scholarly exercise have become far easier since the advent of computers and the internet. Do students any longer need to trawl through numerous books and articles, building understanding on the way, to engage in academic work? Or can they get by through canny navigation of the internet; finding short cuts and applying a copy and paste approach to work they carry out? Even something as ubiquitous as spell check, allows me to routinely spell necessary as neccaserry before correcting me, rather than encouraging me to learn.
Recent research, in the Journal Science, is also suggesting that computers and the internet are changing the nature of our memory and the way we think. Results from psychological experiments they undertook showed that people presented with difficult questions began to think of computers. When participants knew that facts would be available on a computer later, they had poor recall of answers but enhanced recall of where they were stored. Essentially we are developing a form of ‘transactive memory’ storing information we need recourse to in places at external to us – it sounds almost like a human form of ‘cloud computing’ with the risks being that we turn into ‘dumb terminals’.
How our cognitive functions develop in years to come is intriguing, the internet allows us to expand our knowledge pools but does it really help us to expand our minds?