Book Review: Brain Gain and the Is-Ought problem

Can technology make us wiser?  There is something to be said for taking a theory as far as you can go with it and pushing it’s boundaries, as the process is educational.  Other people have taken the “technology is making us dumber” meme and pushed it and so Marc Prensky’s book, Brain Gain, provides a nice counterpoint to such arguments, illustrating the myriad ways which technology enables people to process more data, faster, with fewer errors.  As someone who uses technology in almost everything I do, I’m the natural audience for the benefits of technology.

However, I don’t think technology can make us wiser.  In Brain Gain, Prensky talks about “digital wisdom” and how technology can help us achieve it by allowing us to process complexity better.  Part of my difference with Prensky is in the definition of the word “wisdom”.  In the book, he goes through several definitions and settles on a definition that is fairly convenient for arguing technology’s impact, which is “the ability to find practical, creative, contextually appropriate, and emotionally satisfying solutions to complicated human problems”  This may just be semantics, but I would define wisdom as being closer to the idea of knowing what’s important, and certainly there is an important element of judging what “ought” to be that is a part of the common idea of wisdom. It is this “ought” that I believe technology cannot help us with.  Technology can help us know what “is” in the world and process what “is” better.  But deciding what “ought” to be is an entirely different question.

Simply put, technology can help us achieve our goals, but it cannot tell us what our goals ought to be.  It is a distinction that I feel that many people who try to “systemize” the world fail to appreciate.  Perhaps technology can free us from certain tasks, enabling us to humanize our remaining time such that we can concentrate on what is important.  But figuring out what is important and what is not, is a process that we humans will likely have to do ourselves.

- Ravi Iyer



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