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Technology & Thought

Technology & Thought

From Ai to the layout of our cities, technology changes who we are and how we think. This week’s selection of recent research explores how, for good and ill, our tools change the very way we think. We start with a recurring topic in my work: GPS…

GPS causes dementia

My prediction: in 20 or so years, we will see a small but substantial increase in dementia.

The cause: GPS-based AI navigation systems, like Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze*.*

We know navigating through space is prophylactic against cognitive decline, but we rarely do it any more. And it's beginning to show...

Not only do people with “greater lifetime GPS experience have worse spatial memory during self-guided navigation”, but greater GPS use over a 3 year period “was associated with a steeper decline in...spatial memory”, even for those with strong initial memory and spatial reasoning.

Habitual use of GPS negatively impacts spatial memory during self-guided navigation

Active navigation requires deeper processing than just following directions, and is associated with improved cognitive longevity.

Hippocampal and prefrontal processing of network topology to simulate the future

What can you do? Take a different route to work. Actively create a new path and engage your brain!

Spatial knowledge impairment after GPS guided navigation: Eye-tracking study in a virtual town

This goes beyond navigation and GPS. "People who use Google to answer general knowledge” questions become overconfident in their own ability and even come to “mistake the internet’s knowledge for their own."

People mistake the internet's knowledge for their own

People should not only be better when they are using technology, they should be better than where they started when they turn it off again.

GPS vs Cognition, Part II

I’ve written before about the role of technology in both augmenting and undermining our cognition (e.g., GPS and Dementia). But what about something as old as the layout of our cities?

Data from “397,162 people from 38 countries across the world...found that people who grew up outside cities were better at navigation.” But even the layout inside a city matters...

Entropy of city street networks linked to future spatial navigation ability

People who grew up in cities with complex “street network entropy” (e.g., Prague) outperformed those from “cities with a low street network entropy” (e.g., Chicago) navigating through more complex environments.

I just gave a talk to an audience of corporate heavy hitters about the “Metaverse”. However else I might feel, one of my concerns is the inevitable drive to make technology “low friction”. Easy. Beginner level for life. In this case, instant teleportation throughout the Metaverse…

Not for me, chummers—I want to deck the Matrix in Prague.

Loss Aversion

Given that “mere awareness of future improvement led participants to experience present versions [of a product] as less enjoyable”, I wonder if living in a state of chronic disappointment drives demand for ephemeral trash—reality shows, fast fashion, and 30-sec videos.

Nothing invested, nothing lost.

The “Next” Effect: When a Better Future Worsens the Present

Be better when you turn it off again!

Technology makes life easier—too easy when it comes to our cognitive health. Take this study on using educational AI.

Do People Engage Cognitively with AI? Impact of AI Assistance on Incidental Learning

When an AI “presented with both a recommendation and an explanation” people “made better decisions than they did when they received no such help, but they did not learn.”

When people “first made their own choice and only then saw a recommendation and an explanation from AI”, they also improved decisions, but showed “no learning.”

Only when people “were presented with just an AI explanation but no recommendation and had to arrive at their own decision” did they make “more accurate decisions and learning gains”, likely “due to deeper engagement with explanations needed to arrive at the decisions.”

This is a perfect example of a technology that improves us in the moment and also makes us better when we turn it off again. I strongly expect, however, that most users would choose the first easy system. You get the Facebook you sign up for.

Monkey See, Monkey Buy

“How did the introduction of mass commercial television in the postwar era change American consumer behavior?” A brief freeze in TV station licensing from 1948-52 reveals that monkey see, monkey buy.

Specifically, the paper has 3 findings:

  1. “During the freeze, total retail sales in counties with TV access increased by 3–4% more than those counties without.” People watching TV bought more stuff.
  2. “The effect…was concentrated in the automobile sector, which alone accounted for a third of the total difference.” In fact, “the start of TV access coincides with greater activity in local highway construction”.
  3. “TV advertising led to higher growth in sales, but only for durable goods”, like new fangled refrigerators and washer-dryers.

It was not explicit advertising but rather role-modeling by TV families that drove this TV-consumerism relationship. Consumers were buying the lives they saw on TV.

Ozzie & Harriet…the first social media influencers.

Media Impact Predictor

Some realities of television viewing:

  1. “Medium and high television viewing in midlife was significantly associated with” lower cortical “volumes in late-life”, with stronger effects with “persistent television viewing”. Sedentary Behavior (SB) In Mid-life And Structural Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Markers Of Cerebrovascular Disease And Neurodegeneration In Late-life: The Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities Neurocognitive Study (ARIC-NCS)
  2. It also leads to “significantly faster rates of decline in global cognition…with high or medium vs. low television viewing”. Sedentary Behavior In Mid-life And Risk Of Change In Global Cognitive Function And Incident Dementia: The Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities Neurocognitive Study (ARIC-NCS)
  3. A "1-standard deviation increase in TV viewing” implies a 0.06-SD decrease in frontal, entorhinal, and total grey matter. Long-term TV Viewing Is Associated With Grey Matter Brain Volume In Midlife: The Coronary Artery Risk Development In Young Adults (CARDIA) Study
  4. And "TV viewing time was statistically significantly associated with all-cause mortality risk in a J-shaped fashion", i.e., the dreaded hockey stick. Association Between Television Viewing Time and All-Cause Mortality: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies
  5. The roll-out of lower-brow television in Italy in the 80s led to increased voting for populist candidates years later, driven by lower cognitive sophistication and civic-mindedness in voters exposed to it as children. The Political Legacy of Entertainment TV

But surely this doesn’t apply to “Severance” or “Rick & Morty”?

Seriously, it would be good to reanalyze this data including a term for depth of processing. If you are thinking hard about even the most crass and inane shows I’d expect different outcomes and meaningful heterogeneity.

For years I’ve wanted to build a “Media Impact Predictor” to model the effects of media consumption on long-term life outcomes. It would guess the shows you watched as a kid based on details about your current life.

AI for Edu

Here’s an important if predictable finding: "teacher-centered instruction…negatively predicts teachers’ value-added scores…[measuring] higher-order skills."

It’s also a cool paper as the authors use natural language processing to measure the teachers’ contributions. It reminds me of work my wife and I did using NLP to analyze student discussions and measure the impact of teacher sentiment on student performance.

Another paper does similar work for student placement

Using “predictive analytics to combine multiple measures into a placement instrument”, “placement rates into college-level courses increased substantially without reducing pass rates.”

This “generally, though not always, narrowed gaps in college placement rates and remedial course taking across demographic groups".

Digital Cognition and Democracy Initiative

I’ve joined a working group trying to understand how technology affects how we think and its (possible) consequent role in weakening democracy.

Institute for Security and Technology » Digitally Influenced Cognition: What is it, and what does it mean for democracy?

It’s been a fascinating project, particularly as we are thinking in terms of how to change these outcomes.