Digital devices are inseparable from the new logistics and communications that are increasingly underpinning human activity. Devices come in a wide array of shapes and sizes and have an equally wide range of functions. Probably the most ubiquitous and familiar devices are personal computers and smartphones. For many people it is impossible to imagine life without the instant connectivity and wealth of information provided by the internet and accessed through such devices. Devices have thus become an integral, perhaps indispensable, part of human life. As these devices permeate society, it is conceivable that humans cede some of their humanity to the digital realm. Using the internet for many of our basic human functions, both individual and societal, effectively requires the internet to make up part of what it means to be human. In 1945 Vannevar Bush introduced his idea of a ‘memex’, which he described as a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. (Bush 1945)
Eerily prescient, Bush’s description accurately describes smartphones. The implication of this is that, thanks to such a device, the limited human mind can be freed up to perform the uniquely human capacities to imagine, associate and experiment.
Of course, such reliance on technology can have negative consequences. If the technology was to disappear or be denied to us, we could potentially lose some of our humanity. The example of Egypt’s internet services being cut off demonstrates the large-scale vulnerability of the technology, as do the cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 that lost citizens access to essential services such as banking. Consider Facebook, a social networking platform with over one billion users. Facebook, and its subsidiary Instagram, are used today as photograph repositories. Hundreds of millions of people upload photos as they are taken, effectively replacing the physical photo albums that older generations typically kept in their homes. Facebook thereby becomes an archive of visual memories. If the internet malfunctioned, Facebook, and the memories it contains, would be inaccessible. Memories, both individual and societal, are a key constituent of what makes us human: losing them would amount to losing some of our humanity. The example of memories shows how over-reliance on technology for important human functions may be unwise.