Do Cell Phones Change What it Means to be Human?

David Chalmers gave a Ted Talk on the way that cell phones change our brains. This talk really disturbed me, even though he and I share the same last name. The conclusion is the part that bugged me the most, so if you don’t feel like watching the whole clip  just jump to the last five minutes or so.

Chalmers puts his finger on why I feel over-using technology is so dangerous: “Say somebody steals my iPhone, you might think that’s a form of theft, but if I’m right, that should actually be reconceived as a really vicious form of assult, like getting into my brain and messing with my neurons.”

Although this may be exaggeration, the fact that someone can say this out loud without being laughed off stage should tell us something about the power of these devices to modify our human self-understanding. Chalmers goes on to explain this power:

“There are some people out there who think Google is making us Stupid. But I actually think it is the opposite: there’s a sense in which Google is actually making us smarter. Google is getting inside our minds. I don’t know about you, but when I sit down in front of Google I feel like my IQ goes up 30 points … Technology is gradually giving us these superpowers, turning us into cognitive super-geniuses. Its only going to go more and more this way in the future. That’s the gift of the extended mind, and the challenge is whether we will use these things for good or evil.”

If we can believe David Chalmers, the smart phone is re-defining what it means to be human, and that re-definition subtly shifts homo sapien to homo omni-sapien. As Read Schuchardt  explained in “iPhone Therefore I Am“, a class from CACE at Wheaton, cell phones make us feel like we have the whole world in our hands, like we are omniscient.

For me, whether we access all knowledge “for good or evil” is not the point. The fact that we are able to augment our capacity to know in this way brings us hauntingly close to the Garden of Eden. Now though, the temptation is not “the knowledge of good and evil”, but access to all knowledge (or at least the illusion of all knowledge) –the only thing we must exchange for this super-power is the ability to be wise without a smart phone.

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