Cognitive Easing: Human Identity Crisis in a World of Technology
by Melanie Swan
Jan 7, 2017
Cognitive Easing is the aim of much of our endeavor, whether explicit or implicit. We have never wavered from trying to create a life of ease, enjoyment, and fulfillment. The definition of Cognitive Easing is spending less mental effort to achieve a result.
A contemporary problem seems to be technology’s controlling presence in the world. Jobs are disappearing due to technological unemployment. News is fed to us that does not correspond to reality. Mysterious big data algorithms direct from the background. We no longer seem able to think for ourselves with “the cloud” automatically piloting our lives. What happened to caprice and serendipity, to our very humanness?
However, I argue the opposite. It is not the infantilization of humans by technology that is happening, but rather the opportunity for cognitive easing. We are not always accustomed to using our brains in the most creative and productive ways. Therefore we feel dumbed-down by technology when cognitive easing is actually freeing us from mental drudgery. Consider the amount of effort spent on “last-mile cognition problems” such as planning and coordination. Instead, cognitive load could be increasingly outsourced to algorithms. This has been the promise of technology from the beginning, easier lives.
A pushback is that lower-level cognitive tasks might seem like part of the definition of what it is to be human. However, while we have had to occupy our time this way, it does not have to be who we are. We need to challenge the false and nostalgic notion of defining our humanness by the tasks we do, and this might not be easy. Even scarier than how we will spend our time after technological automation is the question of who we are – our very identity.
Technology is forcing us to question what it is to be human. We have defined ourselves by physical labor and lower-level mental tasks, and it is abrupt to have to change this, especially because we do not know who we are. Worse, there is a timing lag with technology replacing what we think our humanness consists of before we have had a chance to redefine what it could be. We feel out of step with technology, and that we are regressing instead of greatly progressing. We think paradoxically that technology robs us of our humanity when in fact it is doing what we wanted all along, providing physical and cognitive easing.
Technology, automation, and cognitive easing are requiring us to redefine what it is to be human based on the higher-level capacities we have. These higher-level faculties include creative problem solving, artistic expression, storytelling, and quirky ingenuity. Only humans have the ability to perceive the world and react with unique and inventive solutions. We can now contemplate a new class of problems that we did not have the luxury of addressing before, deploying our creative problem-solving capability to a greater extent. The vision for the future is engaging with more of our unique humanness, increasingly freed from both physical and mental drudgery, to be more of who we really are, creative, serendipitous, problem-solving beings exploring and enacting our world in new and ingenious ways.