English edition • Worldcrunch

PARIS - Do the Internet and digital devices make us happier and more efficient. Or do they just make us less intelligent?

Two new books try to answer the question asked by Nichols Carr in The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. Italian linguist Raffaele Simone and French philosopher Jean-Michel Besnier deliver very different views on the matter.

According to Simone, modern men and women are “caught in the Web,” absorbed in the “media sphere”, which he describes as an “environment in which online electronic media play a fundamental role,” and create, “from nothing, trends, needs and new pressures.”

It can be annoying – or amusing – to watch the frenzy with which other people handle their smartphones and tablets. The author asks himself “in which depths were buried this spectacular need to communicate that we have been observing around the world since the cell phone was invented?”

The problem is that the Web has a great impact on our intelligence. According to Simone, we are currently in the middle of the “third phase” of knowledge acquisition. The first phase was when we started writing; the second phase was the invention of the printing press. There is one difference – both those phases relied on text, while the third phase is dominated by images and sounds.

Written knowledge allows thoughts to be structured and more complex than oral communications. It is based on a specific form of intelligence Simone called “sequential” – meaning the way we assimilate new information, one after the other. The Web and videos, on the other hand, favor a “simultaneous” form of intelligence – we are capable of taking in different types of information at the same time but without “being able to put them in order as a logical succession, with hierarchy.”

While there is text on digital devices, it has multiple forms: It’s copied, pasted and constantly re-written – it gets “dissolved,” says Simone. In the end, the automatic and systematic filing of data (photo, video, audio and textual) leads to a paradoxical mass “amnesia,” when we ask the search engines to do the tasks our memory are supposed to do, we deeply modify our capacity to remember things.

Operator or zombie?

Our tendency to use electronic tools for skills that used to be considered essential is what The Simplified Man, Jean-Michel Besnier’s latest book is all about. Using the example of interactive voice response (IVR) systems that have replaced customer services, he asks a simple question: “How does the cultured species that we are, born from the Age of Enlightenment and having witnessed totalitarianism, let itself become a slave to its machines?”

The situations in which we delegate our responsibility to objects or programs are multiplying: Search engines algorithms decide which websites best match our needs; the so called “service” robots that are supposed to take better care than us of the elderly or autistic children; the GPS navigators without which we are completely lost…

Drawing from literature (George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Fritz Zorn, etc.) and philosophy (Plato, Hannah Arendt, etc.), Besnier believes this dehumanization existed long before computers. According to him, the industrial revolution – that transformed men into operators of machines that were more powerful than them – was already part of this movement.

In the end, Jean-Michel Besnier draws a rather bleak perspective. Far for liberating us, the technological society denies us the awareness of being unique – which leads to depression and “zombification.”

Simone is less adamant. While he believes that “it might be beneficial to admit we have irrevocably lost some forms of knowledge,” he doesn’t think it’s possible “to anticipate what will happen to the new forms of knowledge being created.”

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