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Technology

Does technology inhibit or enhance our curiosity?

A woman using a smart phone

When I have asked myself or others that question, the answers I got depended on whether I asked people who develop technology or people who consume technology.

The developers of technology said that they find their curiosity enhanced by the infinite possibilities that technology offers. Recall, for example, the evolution of computers over the past fifty years. In the 1960s, computing technology was housed in and mostly developed through large mainframe computers the size of a living room. As the state of the art evolved into the 1970s, the computing power of those large mainframes was condensed into desktop mini-computers a hundredth the size and ten times as powerful. Mini-computers evolved into laptops, which offered the same or more computing power in smaller, more convenient packaging. From laptops, we progressed to tablets and mobile phones, and today we have what’s referred to as wearable technology and nanotechnology.

Imagine the curiosity that resulted in the integrated circuit. Imagine Steve Jobs’ curiosity around the subject of calligraphy and his application of that curiosity to the creation of unusual computer fonts. That kind of curiosity has continued to drive the question: how do we make computing technology more accessible, faster, more powerful, more aesthetically pleasing, more secure, and more able to solve problems?

Can we even imagine how curious technologists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and bioscientists must be as they pursue the next version of a smartphone, smart kitchen, self-driving cars, or cures for diseases? Whatever the next generation of innovations may be, people will achieve it by combining the infinite wonders of technology with equally infinite doses of curiosity.

An image showing the key attributes of technology Click to expand

Technology’s impact on curiosity

Despite the spurring of their own curiosity by technology, some creators fear that for the rest of us, the mere consumers and beneficiaries, all the innovations may be lessening our curiosity.

Scott Hanselman [1], a Microsoft-based web technologist and teacher of computer technologies, views the world in binary terms of those who are curious and those who are not. Possibly deriving from his parents’ lessons in his childhood of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset, he believes that the more technology advances, the more it seems like magic. This magic eliminates curiosity about how it works.

He asks in a video presentation, “Is twenty-first-century technology making it too easy? Are iPhones so magical sitting atop the last millennium of technology that it’s not worth teaching, or even wondering, how it all fits together?” He clearly defines himself as one who is curious. “I took apart my toaster, my remote control, and a clock-radio telephone before I was ten. Didn’t you?

What’s the difference between the people who take toasters apart and the folks who just want toast? At what point do kids or young adults stop asking, ‘How does it work?’ Perhaps curiosity is an innate thing; perhaps it’s taught and encouraged, but likely it’s a little of both.

“I hope you’re stretching yourself and others to ask more questions and explore the how and why of the world around you.”

Kishau Rogers is a senior technologist and CEO of the Websmith Group [2], a corporation that helps organisations take new technologies from conception to commercialisation. She suggests that rather than teach children how to code, we should teach them how to think about systems.

“If we simply accept technologies as somehow magically providing us the answers, we have no reason to be curious about how those answers were conceived.”

We don’t need to know the intricacies, she suggests, but at least we should understand the basics of how we got there.

Naomi Karten leverages her background in both psychology and technology to help organisations improve customer satisfaction and strengthen teamwork. In a speech, she explained, “It’s the ease of access that seems to be of greatest concern. Kids today can pull up Wikipedia and find page after page of data. But are they learning anything? And the situation isn’t any better for us adults. Consider the news. Instead of reading it daily via print, we can now get the news all day long from our phones, tablets, laptops, and televisions. We have easy access, but are we any more or any better informed?

“There’s an understandable concern that the instant gratification we derive from technology is making us less likely to be curious about increasingly difficult problems. By filling our brains with easy answers, we become less likely to go after complex problems.” [3]

Consumers of technology seem to have a slightly different view.

Fifty years ago, if we were to search for the population of Duluth, Minnesota, we would resort to Encyclopedia Britannica, which would most likely be out of date. We would then cross-reference our information with three other sources to verify the encyclopedia’s accuracy. After researching the question for thirty to forty-five minutes, we would have our answer, knowing it still may not be quite accurate or complete.

Today, we have Siri or Alexa or other comparable technologies that will find our answer in less time than it took me to type this sentence.

By the way, Siri told me that as of 2010, the population of Duluth, Minnesota was 86,265, and I didn’t have to type this sentence. I dictated it through the wonders of voice activation.

Does that mean that as a consumer of these marvels of technology, a user rather than a developer, I’m any less curious than the developers of the iPad, or Siri, or smart cars? Am I somehow less curious than the bioengineer who tirelessly pursues the cure for Alzheimer’s?

Immediate information

Nicholas Carr [4], author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, described the dilemma technology seems to create. “On the one hand, I can now do in minutes that which once required days. On the other hand, I feel I’m not thinking the way I used to.”

He continued, “I feel it most strongly when reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do.”

That’s how technology can affect our concentration. Then there’s the issue of retention.

Technology may help us to find information more quickly and efficiently, but do we retain that information the way we used to? Many behaviorists, supported by research, argue that the longer the time and greater the effort required to obtain information, the better we retain that information.

So, are we any smarter?

If we want to continue to develop our ability to improve what technology can do for us, we need to open our minds and develop our sense of curiosity.

In the following step, we look at technology further.

Discussion

There are many sub-components of technology including the sense that it does it for us, we are not trained enough, or find it overwhelming.

List some of the reasons you under or over-utilise technology and what benefits you could experience from having high and low-tech days?

Share your lists in the comments section below!


References

1. Hanselman S. Scott Hanselman - Coder, Blogger, Teacher, Speaker, Author [Internet]. Hanselman.com. 2020 [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.hanselman.com

2. About the Founder. Web and Mobile Software Development | Websmith Studio. [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: http://www.websmithstudio.com/about/founder

3. Karten N. Is Technology Increasing or Suppressing Curiosity?. TechWell. 2013 [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.techwell.com/techwell-insights/2013/01/technology-increasing-or-suppressing-curiosity

4. Nicholas Carr. Nicholas Carr. [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: http://www.nicholascarr.com

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Innovative Leadership: Developing Curiosity

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