Is personal technology just another “tool”? Or is it fast becoming a symbiotically-integrated part of being human?
By Marc Prensky, Founder, the Two Billion Kids Project
“In the very near future, leaving home without having your technology on will be like leaving home without having your clothing on — you will be welcome almost nowhere.” – Marc Prensky
How many public places in the world can you go to without clothing? Not very many, and only a few choose to go to those places — although many of them are open to all.
Clothing is one of the oldest of human technologies, and today it has become a necessary and universal part of human interaction. Although clothing takes on many cultural forms, and what we wear at any time is situational, even just imagining someone without clothing is considered in poor taste and frowned upon almost everywhere.
Clothing is an apt metaphor for the direction in which today’s personal technology is heading. It will soon be impossible — not just rude but not welcome and possibly illegal — to not have connected technology on you in public.
Most Prefer “Naked”
Not everyone is happy about this, because until recently — and even today — the default and preferred state for most in the world, in terms of technology, is “going naked.” Certain places excepted, most people in the world go around using only their “natural” (i.e. unextended) brains and senses to do most things — Including connect to one another. They are often aided, of course, by long-available technologies such as writing implements, watches, eyeglasses, and cars, which are generally thought of, and referred to as “tools” — something that humans are distinctive in creating. A key feature of tools, however, is that they are optional — people can employ them or not, as they see fit. Although it makes things easier, no one is required to have paper and pencil on their person (except, perhaps, in school.) No one is required to drive — you can always walk.
Many see smart phones as our newest and most advanced tools. Yet as more and more people continually carry devices — with all their capabilities — and use those capabilities continually for their work, pleasure, and communication, the important question that arises is “Are these devices, and all their technological affordances, still optional “tools” (in the sense of watches and pens)? Or are they instead becoming, extremely quickly, integrated into our humanness (like clothing) — i.e. things we’ve all decided we can’t really do without?
This question — whether our new technologies are tools, or whether they are new, integrated parts of humans — is a critical one for humanity. The entire global population is going, at different speeds, through a great experiment to figure out how to function and thrive in a new, connected world. We are going through a huge transition in society, a change from one paradigm of being human to another: from people with no personal technology to people with hugely powerful personal technology.
In his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, Thomas Kuhn writes that such transitions have always meant putting on “new lenses” about how we see the world. Whenever mainstream views of how the world works are disrupted by what he calls “an anomaly” — in this case automation and a new form of human connection — the world goes through a very chaotic and difficult period — Kuhn calls it a “crisis.” It eventually leads to the acceptance of a new “mainstream” perspective on the world — typically, says Kuhn, incompatible with the old. This is what we mean by “paradigm change.” The world was flat. Now it’s a globe. Humans have no personal technology, humans have hugely powerful personal technology. Time to change our lenses.
The current paradigm change we are going through is often associated with generational change. Necessarily, the older generation approaches the the new capabilities offered by technology from the perspective of their own times — their pre-digital conceptions and beliefs about what is human, what is important, and more. The new generation, which has had these technology capabilities from birth, sees things differently. If you talk to cultural anthropologists like Genevieve Bell (an Australian professor who also works for Intel) she will tell you that attitudes are changing generationally with regard to a great many things, including technology, privacy, property, personal relationships, security, sexuality, power, kids, violence, god, justice, money, love, government, and even time and space. People’s very-long-held perceptions of what it means to be human, in this time of paradigm change, are suddenly deeply in flux.
As with any new path and exploration, the transition from one paradigm of “humanness” to another is neither direct nor easy. Today we see a “Thermidorian reaction” taking place, as part of our society struggles to maintain the old paradigm of being human and human development. Many say we should turn off our technology at regular intervals and go back to being without it. We read in The New York Times about a tech reporter “detoxing” from technology and feeling better for it (Kevin Roose). We hear from a former Google employee that technology is “downgrading humanity” (Tristan Harris). That continues us down the reactionary path started several years ago by the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Nicholas Carr). We see once enthusiastic technology supporters now turning against it, and cheering on “Team Human.” (Douglas Rushkoff). We read that a former Facebook employee feels “tremendous guilt” over his work on “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” (Chamath Palihapitiya). We see recommendations , for limiting screen time from organizations like the American Medical Society and The World Health Organization, whose role is supposedly to protect us. We hear frightening terms like “dopamine hit” and “addiction” thrown around indiscriminately by non-scientists. We read about people taking “digital sabbaths” and “sabbaticals,” There is, in sum, a general, reactionary call for a “reset” of our views on technology.
I have some sympathy for these arguments — however reactionary — because I observe the same phenomena that those people do — kids deeply tethered to their phones. But I interpret what is happening differently, because I believe this is the beginning of an important human transition process. What these people don’t take into account, or don’t realize, is how early we still are in that process. What we can now see is not even “chapter 1” of the story — it’s still the Introduction.
Up until now, the only adults who have fully taken advantage of personal technology’s capabilities are the videogame makers and social media creators — people whose motives have not been wholly altruistic. Sticking a modern computer game in front of almost anyone captures their attention. Connecting people with others who give rapid feedback, with likes, posts, tweets, etc. — and deceptively calling them “friends” — also captures their attention. Spurred on by huge profits, they have done some exciting — and some very questionable — things to capture the eyeballs, attention and money of very large numbers of people, particularly young people. And often this leads to consequences, including large amounts of screen time, that many don’t like
The Positive is Coming
The problem is that we, as a species, have so far taken precious little advantage of all the positive new capabilities offered by these new technologies and devices. We are way further behind In using them in areas where monetization is harder, i.e. to improve individuals and their world. Some progress is being made, such with sensors improving health awareness, but we are not yet even close to where I believe we are capable of being, and will get to — in today’s kids’ lifetimes. It is very hard to grasp the speed at which things are now moving, because we have never seen it before. With the exponential progress of technology, and the convergence of so many technology-dependent fields, we are about to get much better at non-entertainment, non-trivial areas as well — medicine, health, and eventually relationships. At its latest I/O conference Google announced ways to use a phone to help people with speech impediments, to read signs in foreign languages, to report potholes and accidents by voice while driving, and to caption photos for searching. The growing capabilities available in our pockets (and strollers!) will be truly remarkable, unexpected — and different.
For example, elementary school kids in previous generations (including today’s adults’) often surveyed or polled their peers (in their class), or their parents. Today’s primary school kids, using Survey Monkey, can easily survey thousands or even millions, of each. Previously, kids could reach only few peers or adults with a message or chain letter, today, with one viral tweet, they can reach a large percentage of the planet. Previously kids couldn’t even physically lift millions of data points on paper. Today they can analyze it easily on computers they already have.
Today’s kids are on the verge of great, never-before-seen personal empowerment and accomplishment. We are already seeing kids using this power to positively impact their real world — over 100 examples for you to be inspired by are available online for free in the Better Their World Database. Today’s kids are no longer “pets,” to be trained by us in our image. They can, even while young, make a positive difference in their world — assuming they learn to, and decide to, do so. What they — and we — haven’t yet figured out is how to use these technologies to become good, effective, world-improving people. We desperately need to.
Helping Our Kids
So the question is “What’s the best perspective to take to make this happen?” Should we view the new capabilities as tools — limiting access when kids are young and gradually introducing to them as they get older and “ready” for them (as we currently do, for example, with alcohol, a tool often used for greasing social relationships)? Or should we, rather, see these as new human capabilities — although created by people and not by natural selection — that kids should start developing from birth?
I am a firm partisan of the view that personal technology is becoming — like clothing — a part of our humanity. I believe we should be doing our utmost to take advantage of this. I’m definitely not among the group that sees these new personal technologies as optional tools — tools which can be turned off and on in whatever way we, or our parents, or our schoolteachers — want, because I think that perspective will hold our kids back. If the tradeoff is actually between less screen time or full future humanity, is that a difficult choice?
“Symbiotic Human Hybrids”
Now that we have the technology, I’m for constant and deep integration with it. In fact, I believe our single most pressing issue today — as a species — is to integrate humans and technology as quickly and fully as possible into what I call good, effective, world-improving “symbiotic human hybrids.” Symbiotic human hybrids are beings who are consciously aware of being composed of both an evolution-developed brain and its new technology-based extensions. Not just “humans with new tools,” they are people who have integrated their brain components and external technology components Into a symbiotic whole. They are people who, in everything they do, divide up their work — and their task of being good, effective and world-improving people — continuously and appropriately between their human and technology components. This is a new way to look at future humans. The reason this perspective is crucial for humanity is that the only thing that will enable us to address the increasingly complex issues, problems, opportunities and promise of our future on this planet and beyond is symbiotically integrating naturally evolved human brains and human-created technology in service of a better world. That goes for climate change, polluting the planet, and everything else.
What is “symbiotic integration”? What would such a “symbiotic human hybrid” look like and do? For now, our human brain components are still clearly better at:
· Dreaming / imagining
· Meta thinking
· Writing (fiction and point of view)
· Feeling awe
While our external technology components are already equally good or better at:
· Accessing information
· Recording history
· Writing (non-fiction)
As technology evolves, the technology components becoming better in more and more areas, e.g.:
· Critical thinking
· Connecting ideas
· Systems thinking
· Project management
· Debate (see IBM Debater)
However, it is the integrated “symbiotic human hybrid” — fully connected and typically working in teams — that is, and will be, best at accomplishing most non-trivial tasks in the foreseeable future.
How to get there?
Getting everyone to that new stage involves a big perspective change — including giving up beliefs about how wonderful “naked” humans are. It means tech companies getting “Free Always-On Real-Time Access to high speed internet” (“AORTA”) to all, and having it guaranteed (or paid for) by governments. It involves our making access and capabilities available, as much as possible, to all in a “commons” — much as Wikipedia, for example now is. It means that in a world where we already have more devices than people, we need to make sure every person has one. Once we have the infrastructure, the sun will graciously provide all the necessary power for free.
I see myself as already on the road to becoming a symbiotic human hybrid — although in the very earliest stages. I now use one device — my iPhone X — to do all my reading, video and TV watching, picture taking and sharing, video creation and editing, researching for my books and articles, writing and editing those books and articles, recording and note-taking of my ideas as I have them, connecting with friends and colleagues all over the world, emailing in multiple languages that I don’t know — and more, every day. Some of these things I could do before in other ways, but now I can do all of them, far more powerfully, from my favorite chair, or even lying in my bed — which is where I think the best. I don’t like being without it — when I go anywhere, I carry my entire library of books I’ve read in the past 10 years — with all my highlights — in my pocket, and often consult it. When I walk in nature my phone beams Chopin or Beethoven into my ears through my noise-cancelling headphones. At night, when I see a constellation or planet I can’t identify, I point my app at the sky and it tells me.
And our kids?
A great many of our kids have continually had music beamed into their ears almost from birth — something that has hardly been studied. We need to start looking for the benefits of these technological enhancements, and of making them available to all. To help our kids to succeed in their fast-arriving future, making our kids into “symbiotic human hybrids,” each in a unique way, should be our number one educational — and societal — goal for them. As long as we see naked, naturally-evolved humans as the “good” part, to be preserved at great effort exactly as it was in the past, and see technology as only a new optional good-or-bad add-on “tool,” all efforts to move kids — and humanity — forward will be seriously handicapped. “Technologically-naked” people are no longer capable of doing much of what we now need — human-technology hybrids are the only kind of people who will allow us to do it. This goes for every field of human endeavor, including the arts and humanities, where all the advanced work involves deep integration with technology.
What’s Sadly Happening
Today our kids are hardly helped — and often impeded — in their technology integration by adults. Although often with good intentions, this is true for both school and parents. In terms of deeply integrating technology and using it powerfully, we have left our kids pretty much on their own. It should hardly surprise us that they have instinctively gravitated to games and social media — because those are the most intense, integrated uses of personal technology. That, and not “addiction,” is why kids won’t put them down.
We could, with changes in perspective and behavior, be helping our kids do so much more. Google’s new “Talk to Books” app can let kids know what 150,000 authors have to say about any topic in half a second. How many even know about this? How may are encouraged to use it by parents or teachers? We could be doing so much more to help kids understand the real power that technology integration is putting into their hands to better their world. In addition to sending kids to coding classes (mostly out of FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out), adults can coach kids to find real problems they see in their families, communities and world, and come up with new solutions — applying the coming and converging technologies of computing, robotics, synthetic biology, crowd sourcing, 3d printing, simulation, nanotech, A.I., virtual reality, telecom, social networking, materials science, big data, blockchain and more. Kids may not be able to do what adults can with these technologies, but kids’ imagination of their possibilities is often far greater. And once they get hooked on doing a project they love, kids will typically learn whatever they need to get it done.
The Underlying Fear and Guilt
So why don’t we do more to make our kids symbiotic with technology? I think it’s because first, the fast-arriving changes people see in kids really scare them, and second, they make them feel guilty about not being able to do more to help. The fear can be summed up simply: “What if personal technology turns out to be the “new tobacco,” and decades down the road we discover that we seriously harmed our kids by exposing them — particularly in their early years — to this emerging technology? What if our kids brains are addled, they lose their ability to interact with each other in the ways humans have in the past and their development is stunted by having less human contact? The guilt is about the opposite: “what if we’re doing too little? — We don’t have any idea how to help.”
Folks can have all these fears and the potential guilt in their heads, but they shouldn’t let those things get the better of them. Although it is certainly true that “anything can happen,” the “personal tech harming all our kids” scenario is very unlikely — the technology is far more empowering than harmful. Rather than overreacting based on our irrational fears of new behaviors, it is far more important for us to have the courage to move, as pioneers have always done rapidly into our new frontier. We have yet to find out what “normal development” of kids will be in this new age — we know only that it will never be as it was.) So we’d better watch carefully — and not leap to premature conclusions. Yes both residents and pioneers can be hurt by new invaders and environments, but the devices we are talking about are neither bullets or blankets full of smallpox — they are mostly empowering. Plenty of kids have already had much of the technology practically since birth and grown up fine. And while there will always be exceptions, the harm we see is minimal, and the real danger is from the other side — that our kids won’t be prepared in time, because we didn’t do what we should have.
I once asked a teenage girl if she played video games. “No,” she answered, “my parents deprived me.” Our biggest problem is that in the name of caution (based on a few studies that — like so much in research — will almost certainly change), we are driving ourselves backwards and depriving ourselves of opportunities. Despite all the capabilities for progress already in our kids’ hands, rather than helping integrate our kids with this technology — and the far more powerful technology it connects to — too many are fighting to limit our kids’ use of it. Far, far too much adult energy is being wasted going back to the past.
But it doesn’t have to be. What we could be doing, rather than worrying and depriving our kids, is supporting and paying for better, and faster R&D about how to support our kids through the transition to a new world. Too many governments still either resist — or don’t see as a priority — getting free, fast-speed Internet access to everyone. Too many phones, which kids could be using, are just sitting in rich people’s drawers. Not enough schools are re-making our education into continuous real-world-impacting projects that kids can and want to do — incorporating future technology from the start. Too many innovators and entrepreneurs — prodded on by venture capitalists in search of riches — are investing billions of dollars in apps that keep kids in the education of the past. We need to radically speed up our human-software integration processes to keep pace with the changes — experimenting integrating new features on a daily basis — and not just leave the field to the game and social media software makers..
Parents can be asking their kids to show how powerful they are. From their explorations and games kids know strategies for doing all sorts of things — from exploring the full Internet to hacking into systems — help them apply those skills to life. Let them share power with the parents, and use the technology to figure out new solutions to family problems. Shopping? Choosing? Saving, Banking? Investing? With just some trust and guidance, kids have it covered. My 14-year-old can already teach me to fly a 787 jet.
“Being a good human” used to mean things like reading frequently, performing calculations, learning languages, looking people in the eye — but all that is changing. It is difficult for many, who got good at being human in the past to handle the transition to something new, where many of these things are better done by our technology parts. Many are now struggling to keep up, and too often taking their frustrations out on the technology, and on the kids. Neither technology nor the kids are really to blame, and neither, really, are any of us — “naked homo sapiens” are evolving into “symbiotic human hybrids.” This may very well turn out to be like homo sapiens and Neanderthals so many years ago — the two species will interbreed for a while, but eventually they will go their separate paths, and only one will survive.
So we’d better ask “Other than getting along with the previous generation, are there still any advantages today of being naked (in a technology sense) in this quickly changing world? Shouldn’t we all be and integrating new technological capabilities into our life and our bodies, and moving metaphorically and practically from eyeglasses to Lasix as fast as we can (especially as the costs fall — the procedures may soon cost less than a pair of glasses.) Hybrids, with tech “clothing” in their pockets or on their bodies have many more options than “naked” people, especially for interaction. While many argue about the depth of those interactions, it is worth remembering that a huge percentage of human interchange is only about the weather, and turning off technology can just as easily lead to silence and isolation for kids as having it on.
A key argument that the reactionaries make is that given what some see as worrying signs, we should “go slow,” out of an “abundance of caution.” While this may sound reasonable, it is a winning strategy from the old world and paradigm, not the new. Today things are changing far too fast for that. We can regret and mourn things that will be lost on the journey to the new world, and there will be many — from looking people in the eye in order to assess their trustworthiness to reading books on paper. But we can still preserve what we value most — human ideas and interactions will certainly continue in new ways — as we move forward. (Unless what we really value is being technologically naked, in which case we are out of luck — that will change, for sure.)
So what do we make of all the current negative reactions and warnings? We make of them, I think, that our kids will not be like us — they’ll be sporting a brand-new technology wardrobe. And while its fashions will change we just need to be sure it doesn’t go further than we can tolerate — it’s really the same hard pill to swallow as watching your kids grow up in a new country and not understanding or speaking your own native language. But both technology change and generational attitude change are now faster than ever, and inevitable.
Even in this new age of uncertainty, some things will remain predictable. Before a tsunami approaches a beach, the tide runs out in a recognizable way. Smart people run for the hills because when the tsunami arrives it’s too fast and furious for those who didn’t start earlier to escape. The technology tsunami is already coming in — although some ignore the signs. But as it arrives at a faster and faster pace those who say “let’s slow down, and take our time” will be unprepared for their new era, and will perish. Those who start running now may suffer some scrapes and bruises getting up the mountain, but they will survive, to later thrive.
I predict most of our kids will be just fine.
Why? Because having seen the tide change, most have already started running.
Marc Prensky is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed speaker, author, and “practical visionary” in the field of education. Coiner of the term “Digital Native,” he today champions an emerging new “empowered to better their world” education paradigm that more directly benefits all students and the world they live in. Marc has spoken in over 40 countries, authored seven books, and published over 100 essays; his writing has been translated into a dozen languages. Marc is the founder of The Global Future Education Foundation and The ARISE-NET.WORLD Real-World-Impact Project Education Network, uniting all in the world offering an “Empowered to Accomplish” education to kids. Previously in his career Marc headed an early prototype charter school. spent six years at the Boston Consulting Group, and founded and ran a learning games company for over a decade. Marc holds an MBA degree from Harvard (with distinction) and a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Yale. He has taught at all levels, from elementary to college. Marc’s many writings, interviews and videos can be found at www.marcprensky.com. Contact Marc at firstname.lastname@example.org