The Next Cognitive Revolution

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When discussing the computer revolution, people often make comparisons to the way automobiles rendered horse-drawn carriages and buggy whips obsolete. But I think to fully appreciate the potential that computers have to change our lives, we should go back to the very first information technology, which is the written word.

Writing is so familiar to us that most people don't even recognize it as a technology, but that's what it is. Writing is entirely different from spoken language, which is part of our biological nature; unless you deliberately deprive a child of stimulation, every child will spontaneously learn to speak. (Or sign, in the case of deaf children.) But writing is an invention, and it wasn't one that came easily. Humans were daubing paint on cave walls and making necklaces for tens of thousands of years before it occurred to anyone to represent speech by making marks. Even today, there are thousands of languages that have no written form. 

Like other technologies,writing has been improved over time. THISSENTENCEISHARDTOREAD-BUTATONEPOINTINHISTORYALLWRITING-LOOKEDLIKETHIS When you read that sentence, you probably moved your lips to sound it out; the earliest forms of writing were tied closely to speech. Over the course of centuries, people separated words with spaces, distinguished between capital and small letters, and added punctuation marks to identify sentences and clauses. These improvements made writing more effective in the same way that advances in metallurgy made knives sharper and stronger.

If you have ever delivered a speech, you almost certainly wrote some words down beforehand; maybe just some notecards, but more likely the entire thing, word for word. Why would you do that, when the final product would be delivered orally? Because writing has become more than a way of transcribing sounds; it helps you organize your thoughts and decide what you want to say. Writing is a cognitive technology, a tool for thinking.

The conveniences afforded by computers are enormous, but even more profound is the impact that digital technology will have on the way we think. I expect that in the future, when you need to prepare a speech, you will use software to help you formulate your ideas. Not Microsoft Word or Powerpoint, which are attempts to emulate older modes of communication; they're like the all-capitals, no-spaces versions of writing. They'll be replaced by something more flexible and dynamic; I don't know what that software will look like, but it will make it easy to express ideas that we currently struggle to convey with words arranged in rows inside a rectangle.

The advantages of such software may not be obvious when we first see it, just as the advantages of writing weren't immediately obvious. Even after the Greek alphabet had been in use for centuries, Socrates remained suspicious of the written word, saying that it offered “the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.” He pointed out that you could ask questions of a learned person and get real answers, whereas if you tried to ask questions of a piece of writing, it could only say one thing. People make similar criticisms of computers today, and for the same reason Socrates criticized writing: because you can't fully appreciate a new mode of cognition until you've become fluent in it yourself.

We're accustomed to thinking of technology as being cold and hard, something that doesn't mesh well with our bodies or ourselves, so when someone says that digital technology will become a part of us, it's easy to envision cables being plugged into our brains, and then recoil at the thought. But if you think of it as an analogue to the written word, it ceases to be frightening and becomes empowering instead. Digital technology will become a part of us by transforming the language in which we think. And rather of diminishing us, it will expand our range of possibilities; it will give us new ways to be smart, new ways to be creative, new ways to be human.

Ted Chiang