Like life itself, technologies evolve. So it is that the telephone became the smartphone, that near-at-hand portal to the information superhighway. We have held these powerful devices in the palms of our hands for the better part of a decade now, but there is a palpable sense that in recent years something has shifted, that our relationship with technology is becoming more intimate.
Some people worry that one day soon we might physically attach computer chips to our minds, but we don’t actually need to plug ourselves in: proximity is a red herring. The real issue is the seamless way in which we are already hybridising our cognitive space with our devices. In ways both quotidian and profound, they are becoming extensions of our minds.
To get a sense of this, imagine being out with a group of friends when the subject of a movie comes up. One person wonders aloud who the director was. Unless everyone is a movie buff, guesses ensue. In no time at all, someone responds with: ‘I’ll just Google that.’ What is remarkable about this chain of events is just how unremarkable it has become. Our devices are so deeply enmeshed in our lives that we anticipate them being there at all times with access to the full range of the internet’s offerings.
This process of blending our minds with our devices has forced us to take stock of who we are and who we want to be. Consider the issue of autonomy, perhaps the most cherished of the rights we have inherited from the Enlightenment. The word means self-rule, and refers to our ability to make decisions for ourselves, by ourselves. It is a hard-earned form of personal freedom and, at least in Western societies over the past 300 years, the overall trajectory has been towards more power to the individual and less to institutions.