I recently engaged a wise young man in a discussion about technology. He asserted that technology is making people more intelligent. As always, I was eager to learn more. The following is a recollection of part of our dialogue...
Clark: Technology makes us more intelligent
Socrates: To what technology do you refer?
Clark: Computers specifically. They make us more intelligent.
Socrates: That is an interesting statement, my friend. I would very much like to learn more from you. Will you please teach me? Why do you think computers make us more intelligent?
Clark: They help us do things that we couldn’t otherwise do.
Socrates: As I am new to this world, would you be kind enough to provide some examples so that I can better understand what you mean?
Clark: Certainly. Computers are sophisticated and fast, which means they can help us solve complicated equations that we are simply not intelligent enough to complete by ourselves. They can even drive cars more safely than people because they can make quick decisions and never grow tired.
Socrates: Computers do indeed seem to be most useful tools. Your assertion is that using computers in this way makes us more intelligent, right?
Clark: That is correct.
Socrates: If this is true, would it not follow that if I use a computer, my intelligence will eventually improve to the point at which I no longer need to use a computer?
Clark: I don’t know what you mean.
Socrates: Well, let’s first consider a different question. Does driving a car make a person better at running fast?
Clark: No, of course not.
Socrates: And does operating a forklift make a person better at lifting heavy things?
Clark: No! Are you being deliberately foolish?
Socrates: I am deliberately being the person who I am — unwise but eager to learn. Tell me, will using eye glasses make a person’s eyes, themselves, better at seeing?
Socrates: So, we are agreed that in using these tools, a person does not improve so that they no longer need those tools, right?
Clark: I suppose so.
Socrates: You are truly knowledgeable, good sir. Now, is it not true that in each of these cases a person becomes worse as they grow dependent upon the technology, so that when it is removed, he is helpless?
Socrates: It seems that we have established a rule. Technology doing things for us does not make us better at doing those things ourselves. Let us now apply the rule to your earlier assertion: Technology (specifically computers) make us more intelligent. Based on what we have just agreed upon, do computers make us more intelligent?
Clark: Maybe they don’t.
Socrates: And is it not possible that our dependence upon computers may in fact hinder our intellectual development, just as a warehouse worker’s muscles do not grow when he depends upon a forklift?
Clark: Okay, okay, Socrates. I think you’ve made your point. Maybe my statement shouldn’t have been taken literally.
Socrates: I can only take your statement for what it is. I’m the type of person who values precision and clarity. Are these things not essential to meaningful dialogue?
Clark: Look, I have to meet some friends so I shall see you later.