How do we store things in our brains, how do we store things in our devices, and what's the connection between the two?

John Hunter with a student

In the beginning, great minds created computers. But over the decades, computers became powerful tools able to shape our minds. Professor John Hunter's research examines the interplay between our brains and our computers, and how it affects us.

"The way we think about memory in the brain has been influenced by how we think about memory in a computer and vice versa," Hunter says. "How do we store things in our brains, how do we store things in our devices, and what's the connection between the two?"

For example, Hunter says people used to memorize telephone numbers and use maps to find locations. We eventually turned that work over to our smartphones. But an uncharged smartphone leaves us helpless to recall a telephone number or find our way. And when technology progresses, those systems on which we depend become wholly obsolete.

"We're using digital devices as prostheses, but we forget that this changes the character of our knowledge and our relationship to it," he says. "It's a myth that once we store information it will be accessible forever. Format changes and other factors impede the versatility and universality we think we have with our technology."

Beyond the limitations of technology, Hunter wants students to understand technology's powerful effects on us. While all students know how to use digital devices, Hunter estimates only about 1 percent of students understand digital technology's deep impact on who we are.

"Very few students really know how the World Wide Web works, despite its omnipresence in their lives," he says. "My challenge is to get students to think critically about these tools."

Above all, Hunter wants students to understand the tradeoff: the internet offers a world of information, but not without exerting a subtle influence over our opinions and daily lives.

"The internet is the means by which we bank, communicate and even find dates. Our assumptions about the world are all being shaped by the digital world," he says. "I want students to shed the idea that the internet is a value-free, neutral entity. It comes with values coded into it.

"These tools have tremendous power to shape us," he adds. "If you're conscious of these shaping forces, you can push against them and try to redirect them. But if you're not conscious of them, your capacity to critically engage with the world is severely compromised."

Posted September 2018