Is Technology Making us Stupid?

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Luc de Brabandere, who carries the mysterious title of corporate philosopher, first spoke at DLD during DLD Women in 2014. Back then, his talk received significant audience response. He returned to DLD15 on Monday with the provocative question: Is technology making us stupid?

“The answer is not yes - but it’s worth spending twenty minutes on the topic,” Brabandere began his talk. We use technology to travel, to write, and to research. It thus follows that technology also influences the way we think, Brabandere argued.

How we think

A philosopher was once asked by a journalist what he thought of Canadians. “I’m sorry, I don’t know all Canadians,” the philosopher replied. Brabandere used this anecdote not to expose a rather pedantic individual, but to show that generally we build our thinking on “a little knowledge and a lot of ignorance”. No one knows all Canadians, but most people are still prepared to make generalizing statements about them or any other group.

Thinking, then, is according to Brabandere a little like playing. It happens between one person and the world, with the person simplifying the world to think about it and then use those simplifications in one of two ways. Either simplification – or concept – is used to go to the world by a process of deduction. Or, a concept can be created from the world by a process of induction.

Deduction is somewhat clear, in that there is one correct answer. Induction, however, is a different matter. There are many concepts that can be induced from the world. No one of these is more true that the other. A concept can thus never be wrong, meaning the smart thinker has doubt. You also need to forget to use a concept, because if you cannot let go of the fact that you do not know all French (to use another nationality), you can never think about Frenchmen.

Thinking in a technological environment

The idea that someday soon technology is going to overtake humanity is hardly new. Computers can compute faster than humans, they can retain more data, they can predict using algorithms. Brabandere, however, argued that there are important reasons why technology can never match human thinking. “A computer cannot forget. A computer cannot conceptualize,” Brabandere said. And creating a new mindset requires forgetting. Showing a picture of a plane with wings like those of a bird’s, Brabandere said that people only flew after they forget about birds. Similarly, the lightbulb is not an improved candle.

Big data

The last section of Brabandere’s talk tied the use of big data into his arguments. “Big data will help discover something new using an already existing concept,” he said giving the example of Johannes Kepler, who discovered planets moved in ellipses by observing the sky (his big data) and knowing ellipses (the already existing concept).

“But we also need to invent! I say technology and big date will help discover but can never invent, because to invent you need to forget,” said Brabandere. Thinking, therefore, is not really possible for a machine, as thinking requires both deduction and induction (which requires forgetting).

Creativity also requires changing the rules. Sometimes this happens through ‘black swans’: highly unlikely events that have a big impact on a paradigm. But it can never happen without freedom of thought. Because in the mind, as Brabandere said, “everything is a hypothesis”.

To conclude, Brabandere summarized his three main points: that to conceptualize one needs to forget; that a concept is never true; and only some concepts are useful. “Creativity is about changing the rules,” he finished. “Two things a machine will never do are creativity and responsibility. A machine will never hit the button.”

Mentioned in this live blog

Luc de brabandere quadrat
Luc de Brabandere
Boston Consulting Group
Fellow & Senior Advisor
Boston Consulting Group

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