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Expert: Smart Tech Is Making Us Dumb

"Re-engineering Humanity" is about how information technology is making us act like machines.
Courtesy Cambridge University Press
"Re-engineering Humanity" is about how information technology is making us act like machines.

We know that smart phones and other information technology are changing the way we live and the way we relate to other people, but could they actually be making us dumber?

Brett Frischmann says they are, and that we should question the use of digital technology and surveillance.

“The ‘Internet of Things’ as is sold and marketed for venture capital and in the business community as inevitable -- we're just going down this path,” Frischmann told Living Lab Radio. “It's not inevitable. We can design and deploy technology differently. We can engineer systems differently. And I mean ‘engineer’ both technically but also socially.”

Frischmann, a professor at Villanova University, is the author with Evan Selinger of Re-engineering Humanity, a book that suggests our smart technologies are making us act “like simple machines.”

“It's not about intelligent machines taking over,” Frischmann said. “I don't really care about the engineering of artificial intelligence or really intelligent machines. I'm more concerned about the engineering of unintelligent humans.”

For example, people have used paper calendars for a long time to help them remember appointments and tasks, but Frishmann sees a difference in the way we use smart phones.

“The vibration in your pocket to give you your next instruction or to remind you about what you’re to do next,” he said. “It's a little bit more intense and personal.”

Frischmann, who has written three other books that touch on information technology, also sees a problem in the way technology is being deployed in schools, particularly data-gathering devices like FitBits.

“You're basically…conditioning kids or engineering kids to accept bodily surveillance by the school,” he said. “And the idea that there may be other ways to deal alternative tools for encouraging fitness besides self-tracking devices doesn't get examined.”  

Frischmann told Living Lab that he wants people to envision a future with less technology and more human intelligence.

“We are all participating in a project of building a world for our children our grandchildren and for future generations,” Frischmann said. “We have to think very carefully about the world we want to build.”

Web post produced by Elsa Partan.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.