Digital Wisdom – How Wise is Marc Prensky?
Marc Prensky, who was responsible for the term “digital native”, hoped that his newer term “digital wisdom” would become an equally popular buzzword for the digital revolution. As things stand, it seems to have fallen flat on its face. Why? Could it be that it represented a rather shallow and confused sort of non-wisdom?
First let’s clarify what digital wisdom is (according to Marc Prensky’s essay). How can we make sense of a claim like this: “digital technology can be used to make us not just smarter but truly wiser”? What is this new digital wisdom?
Looking at Prensky’s essay we see two things: an image and a definition. The image comes first. It is an image of a digitally enhanced humanity in which the brain and digital technology form a “unified, densely coupled system.” To illustrate this, Prensky quotes a teenager he overheard say “If I lose my cell phone, I lose half my brain.” The human being is the brain, and the digitally enhanced human being is a unity of the brain and its digital enhancements – cranial plugins that will mean, for instance, that it will no longer be necessary to use the human body to manipulate the world – thought will be enough and the technology will do the rest. We will also be able to read each other’s minds without the deceptions and dissimulations of the old forms of oral, somatic and written communication. And of course we will be able to know what our exact digital location is without having to look around at the now redundant physical surroundings, and the ability to know at all times the exact digital location of all the other enhanced brains that are in our digital cephalic circles.
Although the boy with the cell phone had the childish idea that he was the centre of his technologically enhanced world, the wiser Prensky suggests that perhaps the opposite will be just as true: “the technologies will connect us more directly to their power.” But like all words of wisdom, there is a certain ambiguity, and on other occasions Prensky affirms the child’s idea that the human being will continue to be the centre of the brain-tech nexus, as is clear in the following: “When we are all enhanced by implanted lie detectors, logic evaluators, and executive function and memory enhancements—all of which will likely arrive in our children’s lifetimes—who among us will be considered wise? The advantage will go, almost certainly, to those who intelligently combine their innate capacities with their digital enhancements.”
After the image, we have the definition, according to which digital wisdom is:
1. Knowing how to digitally enhance the capacities of the brain.
2. Using the digitally enhanced capacities to find better solutions to the practical problems we face.
Now, let me ask: Are these two “things” wisdom? The first refers to knowing how to make the technology. It’s like the iron age people knowing how to make iron implements from iron ore. That’s know-how – a kind of knowledge – but why would anyone call it wisdom? Surely wisdom is something else.
What about the second aspect, using the technology to solve practical problems? Let’s look at one of Prensky’s examples (from an interview). It concerns a hospital intensive care unit with a limited number of beds. The doctor must decide which patients should be given a place in the unit. There are too many patients for the available beds, and those who are not treated in the intensive care unit will probably die earlier. Prensky says the unwise thing would be for the doctor to try to make a judgement on her own. A wise doctor would leave the judgment to a computerised system able to process a much larger body of data than the unaided brain of the doctor could handle. The computer would be able to make accurate predictions of how many extra days of life each patient is likely to gain from the treatment, and so could more accurately identify the patients who would gain the most. He adds: “And that’s a wiser way to do it. So it occurred to me the best way is to combine technology with human judgment. And that’s what I call digital wisdom.”
Now, Prensky calls that wisdom, but is there really any wisdom there? There is a situation where a practical decision has to be made. The decision is handed over to the computer, but the wisdom of the computer (if it has any) can only be a function of the wisdom contained in the assumptions built into its programme. And beneath the assumptions in this case is the unstated principle of all digital technology: the only values that are to be taken into account are those that can be expressed as numbers. The significant world is only that which can be quanitified. Now, does a wise person just take such a principle for granted, or is wisdom precisely something that calls into question such principles?
It is not by chance that we cannot find any real wisdom in this example. The definition of wisdom was already flawed because fatefully circular. In effect, Prensky is saying: Wisdom is the wise use of technology – but the technology does not help us to decide how to use it wisely. In effect, this has been a wild goose chase. Prensky effectively admitted as much in his introduction, where he said: “Technology alone will not replace intuition, good judgment, problem-solving abilities, and a clear moral compass.” Intuition and a moral compass. There we have something that comes closer to those layers of insight and understanding that the word “wisdom” properly refers to. Technology cannot replace it. So why does Prensky send us on a crazy hunt looking for wisdom in the technology itself?
In a sense the term “digital wisdom” is an oxymoron. And its contradictory character would have become clear if Prensky had stepped back a little further to take a longer, harder look at the history of technology. When people talk about the digital age they put society on a line that stretches back to the bronze, iron and stone ages. The age is understood in terms of its most characteristic form of technology – like Marx looking at early industrial society and saying that the tone of the whole epoch was set by the spinning jenny. Now, would there be any point going back to look for stone, iron or bronze wisdom, or spinning jenny wisdom? In each case the technology is the product of the calculating mind that wants to harness and master the forces of nature. In the beginning, technology sprang from scattered individuals making remarkable discoveries that answered to pressing needs. Now the whole process of researching, developing, funding, producing, marketing, selling and trashing technology has acquired a life of its own, skilfully recruiting both producers and consumers – something that looks increasingly like as a huge living apparatus which “connects us to its power.” Now, all the while that technology has been developing, there has been a parallel tradition sustained by more marginal figures often to be found on hillsides away from the mines, the forges, the factories, the sweatshops, the office blocks and the market places – a tradition of thinkers reflecting and meditating on the follies of the calculating, self-aggrandising mind, and here we find (do we not?) something that deserves to be called wisdom. It is a wisdom that need not deny the technology and the benefits some of it can bring. Instead, those words of wisdom serve to remind us that that is only half the story, and that we forget the other half at our peril.
Illustration: Kate Molloy