by Julius WiedemannOct 13, 2020
How could we use digital technologies to optimise our finite cognitive capacity? This is a question that has both intrigued and animated a lot of research departments in the world. Cognition is not infinite and therefore there is a reason as to why it should be used carefully. We should strive to avoid wasting energy with activities we no longer need to do, so that we concentrate on more pleasurable things, such as staying with the family, doing sports, meeting friends. Of course, it is all easier than done, and mundane tasks still need to be accomplished.
The brain should be concerned with activities that are essential not only to our survival, but these days mostly to our intellectual prosperity. I would claim that the most noble ambition is the one of intellectual advancement. As we distance ourselves in our development from basic needs such as looking for food, we tend to focus on activities that add value, and therefore the need for more education. Granted that, our brains now have trouble keeping up with the amount of information that is permeating everybody’s lives. When Gary Kasparov lost to the IBM computer in XXX, it was not only a wake-up call for Kasparov and IBM alone. It was a clear sign that computers now are able to hold more information and propose combinations faster and with more meaning than humans can, in a lot of cases.
The Persuasive Technology centre at Stanford University in California is one of the places where research regarding how technology alters our behaviour is being conducted on the highest level. The brain naturally outsources activities for which it deems not necessary anymore, and for which it finds external support. Being reminded of things I consider to be one of the greatest uses of digital media. Phone numbers, birthdays, addresses, ZIP Code, surnames, appointments, meetings, etc. But leap forward in being reminded is also about things that we would not naturally receive information about. Here are the usual suspects, like offers and promotions from travel sites and online shopping companies. The 3C layer, which is operating now with us, is subtler than that. Take the Netflix new release for instance.
Picasso implied that computers were dumb because they could only answer questions. They can’t formulate them. Even though computers have advanced a lot, and still might not be able to selectively formulate creative questions, it can already ask simple ones. And that’s the way all systems start. Digital systems do not aim to be perfect, they strive to improve every day, and to adapt to people’s needs. AI is in the forefront of that, with machine learning being the idea to capture behavioural patterns so that predictions become a business of almost certainty.
What seems to be the expectation now is how far we can predict users’ behaviours and how intelligently we are going to use that. The more data we have, the greater is our ability to understand that we are individuals where each one comes with unique behaviour patterns. What we can do with digital is not to apply behaviour patterns to everyone, but instead to have real-time systems running, which would tailor-make frameworks so that we can respond accordingly to specific stimulations. If we assume that we live constantly jumping between insecurities and stimulation, it’s just a consequence that well calibrated tools can also control the decision-making process, and that is where a lot of the bets are, and where many companies in technology are pouring their money. In this sense reminders become more than simply sending us notifications of what we have forgotten. It becomes a powerful tool for lifting and materialising our subconscious desires and urges. If and how that is supposed to be regulated is a big question mark. Unleashing the potentialities is not the biggest problem. More concerning is the transparency with which companies will allow users to interact with these technologies, and how they may be imposed on a massive scale to accomplish mass control. Having said that, all these technologies are already available, and they are being tested as we go. We are the guinea pigs of all this potentiality and we can only work hard to make sure that they are used to our utmost benefit, creating a society that is transparent about each stakeholders’ desires, individually and collectively.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.