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Day: June 26, 2012

Technology influences cognition

Technocriticism Wordle

That technology can influence cognition should be painfully obvious when you examine our primary technology of communication – language. Someone who knows a language cannot choose to ignore that language when confronted with it. If you are a literate person, letters arranged together do not appear randomly placed, they form words. When someone talks, you cannot hear it as babble, you are forced by how this technology has influenced your thinking to hear words.

When one looks at language, it is nonsensical to ask if one has a choice whether or not to use this technology. Once proficient in a language, barring a severe brain trauma, one remains proficient in that language and has it forever more alter their thinking. You can’t choose not to use a language once you have it and are exposed to it anymore than you can choose your parents.

Different languages and the accumulation of culture (another technology) that goes along with them result in different ways of thinking. One of the reasons why translation is so difficult between cultures is because quite often cultures have concepts which are unique only to their culture, which tells us that differences in the technology of culture results in different types of thinking. In the same way, people who are proficient in digital cultures have their own thinking altered by their participation in those cultures.

It is possible that there are technologies which do not influence our cognition. It may be, for example, that we are not influenced by our cell phones (which incidentally, whatever their value may be, a device which allows almost anyone in the world to interrupt you no matter what you are doing) to the degree that they influence our thinking.

I do not think this is true though. When you look at cell phone use in particular, you will no doubt recognize that possession of a cell phone and knowledge in its use means that if you are planning to meet someone else, who also posses a cell phone and knows how to use it, you are less likely to carefully plan exactly when and where you will meet them. So just possessing and knowing how to use a cell phone changes your behaviour, and changes how you plan your life. If one possesses a smart phone, and are at all proficient in its use, one generally stops planning exactly how one will travel somewhere in advance.

My strong suspicion, although I cannot yet prove this, is that all technologies include different types of thinking which are a necessary part of using the technology, and that while the influences of technology are not deterministic — we have some free will in our use of technology, I do not think that someone who is not cognicent of the limitations of their technology will see those limitations.

The benefits of technology use are generally easily apparent. What are usually less apparent are the drawbacks. So instead of blindly using technology without regard to the potential drawbacks, we need to be considerate of its use, and be critical of how it has changed us. We need to be technocritical as users, and those of us who are experts in technology use must especially be experts in critical reasoning around its use.

Glass is half-full

A CNN report on a survey done by the digital security company McAfee (which reads more like an ad than a report – what happened to investigative reporting?) has some startling statistics. According to the CNN sanitization of the survey:

  1. Clear browser history (53%)
  2. Close/minimize browser when parent walked in (46%)
  3. Hide or delete IMs or videos (34%)
  4. Lie or omit details about online activities (23%)
  5. Use a computer your parents don’t check (23%)
  6. Use an Internet-enabled mobile device (21%)
  7. Use privacy settings to make certain content viewable only by friends (20%)
  8. Use private browsing modes (20%)
  9. Create private e-mail address unknown to parents (15%)
  10. Create duplicate/fake social network profiles (9%)


On the flip side, this survey says something else as well:

  1. 47% of teenagers don’t clear their browsing history – either out of ignorance or because they trust their parents.
  2. 54% of teenagers feel no need to close their browser just because their parent walked in.
  3. 66% of teenagers either do not delete their IMs, do not delete videos, or both.
  4. 77% of teenagers tell the truth about online activities.
  5. 77% of teenagers use a computer their parents may check.
  6. 79% of teenagers do not have a smart phone.
  7. 80% of teenagers do not apply friends-only privacy settings (but I wonder how many of these teenagers are only posting innocuous content online).
  8. 80% of teenagers do not use private browsing.
  9. 85% of teenagers share all of their email addresses with parents.
  10. 91% of teenagers do not create fake or duplicate social network profiles.


While the Internet certainly has the potential to amplify poor behaviour, the fact that so many teens are using it in an open and public way, and that we have such little media coverage of their poor behaviour online (which it seems to me would be highly publicized if it existed), suggests that maybe teenagers today are okay. The Internet is a communication tool, and historically, teenagers have struggled to use communication tools in a highly appropriate way at all time – which is not surprising given that they are in a state of developing identity and understanding the nuances of society.