The tools we use to think change the ways in which we think. The invention of written language brought about a radical shift in how we process, organize, store, and transmit representations of the world. Although writing remains our primary information technology, today when we think about the impact of technology on our habits of mind, we think primarily of the computer.
My first encounters with how computers change the way we think came soon after I joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the end of the era of the slide rule and the beginning of the era of the personal computer. At a lunch for new faculty members, several senior professors in engineering complained that the transition from slide rules to calculators had affected their students’ ability to deal with issues of scale. When students used slide rules, they had to insert decimal points themselves. The professors insisted that doing that required students to maintain a mental sense of scale, whereas those who relied on calculators made frequent errors in orders of magnitude. Additionally, the students with calculators had lost their ability to do “back of the envelope” calculations, and with that, an intuitive feel for the material.
That same semester, I taught a course in the history of psychology. There, I experienced the impact of computational objects on students’ ideas about their emotional lives. My class had read Freud’s essay on slips of the tongue, with its famous first example: The chair of a parliamentary session opens a meeting by declaring it closed. The students discussed how Freud interpreted such errors as revealing a person’s mixed emotions. A computer science major disagreed with Freud’s approach. The mind, she argued, is a computer. And in a computational dictionary—like we have in the human mind—closed and open are designated by the same symbol, separated by a sign for opposition. Closed equals minus open. To substitute closed for open does not require the notion of ambivalence or conflict. “When the chairman made that substitution,” she declared, “a bit was dropped; a minus sign was lost. There was a power surge. No problem.” The young woman turned a Freudian slip into an information-processing error. An explanation in terms of meaning had become an explanation in terms of mechanism.
Today, starting in elementary school, students use e-mail, word processing, computer simulations, and virtual communities. In the process, they are absorbing more than the content of what appears on their screens. They are learning new ways to think about what it means to know and understand.
There are a number of areas where I see information technology encouraging changes in thinking. There can be no simple way of cataloging whether any particular change is good or bad. That is contested terrain. At every step we have to ask, as educators and citizens, whether current technology is leading us in directions that serve our human purposes. Such questions are not technical; they are social, moral, and political. For me, addressing that subjective side of computation is one of the more significant challenges for the next decade of information technology in higher education. Technology does not determine change, but it encourages us to take certain directions. If we make those directions clear, we can more easily exert human choice.
Adapted from S. Turkle, How computers change the way we think. ©2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education.