As many people already know, there is a marvelous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary movie from the late 1960s, 2001: A Space Odyssey in which an early ape-man discovers that he can use the bones of dead animals that have been left on the African plain as clubs to drive away wild animals or other early humans who might be menacing him. This of course may well be not only the first tool that humans used to control their environment, but may likewise be the dawn of our concrete intelligence. Rejoicing at his discovery, the ape-man throws one of the bones in the air, it hangs there suspended, and then in one of Kubrick’s miraculous touches it becomes a modern day space station.
Obviously, this brief classic cinematic moment demonstrates the entire progression of human intelligence, from the concrete to the abstract. That is, as our intelligence grew increasingly abstract, in the same way in which a child’s intelligence moves from a stage of concrete operations toward one of abstract conceptualization, we eventually were able to produce great, towering works of abstract thought, such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species or Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity; as well as insightful works of brilliant metaphysical speculation, such as are found in the writings of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu or the great modern teacher Krishnamurti.
The point is that the evolution of our intelligence has always moved steadily from the concrete toward the abstract. Paintings on the walls of caves, the first known use of symbols by early humans, eventually became symbols representing thoughts and words, which then of course led to the spoken word, which then led to the first alphabet and the beginning of written language. People’s thoughts concurrently progressed from those of the more primitive variety to actual scientific investigations of ourselves, our world, and our universe; those thoughts following a distinct pattern of growing increasingly abstract and complex.
Except maybe up until now. That is, the digital devices of our modern cyber world, fascinating as they are, may be just tools in much the same manner that the bone of an animal became a tool for early humans, something that can be used to come to grips with one’s day-to-day existence without having to necessarily understand how and why the tool is so effective. And if those same digital tools come to increasingly dominate our world and our culture, will our intelligence move correspondingly backwards toward one of concrete rather than abstract thought, eventually reaching a place where we can no longer conceptualize ourselves or our world as effectively as we once did?
Unfortunately, there is evidence that this may be already occurring. Schools now rely increasingly on empirical guidelines to evaluate student learning, such as test scores, rather than looking at that learning more personally and qualitatively. Success in various fields – from musical talent to business to cooking – is becoming ever more a function being judged by panels of critics on reality television. Nearly everything that one purchases online at some site like Amazon is subject to being rated with various stars by the consumers who purchased the product. Even which information one has quick access to on Google or other search sites is subject to rankings determined by digital algorithms.
Of course, except for what is occurring in education, these are all relatively minor examples of thought in contemporary culture becoming more concrete and less abstract. Issues that are more important are things like how our art and literature might be dumbed down as our consciousness grows more concrete and less theoretical. How our direct insight into situations or other people might be similarly diluted. Or how our ability to think creatively in solving either scientific or societal problems might be affected by a diminished capacity to think abstractly and theoretically. These are just some of the issues with which we are going to have to deal in ascertaining how much if any of our intelligence might be in the process of being compromised by this new digital age in which we have now come to live.
Lyn Lesch’s upcoming book Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May Be Imperiled, published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be available later this Fall.