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Is Technological Incapacitation Making You Less Human?

Technological Incapacitation Is Real

Face of half woman, half robot split down the middle
Image from Canva, altered by author

A futurist, utopian vision of human development is one where we become more capable of doing things by way of being more integrated with technology.

However, the paradox of technology is that while it can increase our human capacities to do things, it often removes or hinders our capacity to do other things.

As a philosopher, I like to call this cost technological incapacitation. It derives from a rich tradition of philosophy called hermeneutics, where philosophers like Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) and Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) note intriguing limitations characteristic of technology as a whole.

Here’s a rudimentary example. (I’ll get to more technological ones below.)

The ability to create fire is a technology—whether it’s using sticks, flint, a magnifying glass, matches, or a lighter. Technology is essentially the know-how (techne) for doing something; and in each instance, there will be a different techne. Knowledge for creating fire with sticks is vastly different from using a lighter.

Imagine a state of society in which everyone knows how to make fire from sticks. Each person would more or less be self-sufficient since the techne is rudimentary—easily created or sourced. In contrast, try making a lighter or magnifying glass from scratch!

Now imagine this same society generations later, when those who had the knowledge of how to make fire with sticks are gone. Instead, fire is now created using a lighter and matches.

The upshot?

What if access to lighters and matches disappeared and there were only sticks lying about? How would the people create fire when the “stick knowledge” was forgotten?

Notice how the use of matches and lighters is a technological advancement over the use of sticks. They are quicker and easier to use. Yet, notice also how in adopting a technological improvement, a certain class of knowledge (i.e. how to use sticks to make fire) is forgotten.

This is a form of technological incapacitation. We lose the ability to do one thing by replacing it with another set of operations.

Montage of firemaking with sticks, with matches; person doing maths on a chalkboard, and a person using a calculator
Images from Canva

To be sure, we can simply mitigate this problem by using technology to record such knowledge. Yet to be doubly sure, there are moments when such technological mitigation itself becomes inaccessible due to catastrophic events or obsolescence of an operating system.

But that’s not my point.

The basic example of firemaking is really intended to show how we lose touch with certain capacities. It’s the so-called calculator syndrome. We may not need knowledge of how to use or do something (e.g. basic maths) because we have a technology to do it for us (e.g. calculators); yet in some fundamental sense, this loss has significant effects on how we are and how we live.

To get an idea of how and why, we have to begin with our basic human condition.

Bodily Presence and Capacitation

One of the great myths of Western thinking is that we are essentially rational beings whose ability to reason is more or less unimpeded when we use the right methods or instruments of analysis.

A great deal of research by psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers has shown that this belief in our capacity to be rational is somewhat betrayed. That is to say:

  • it’s not really the case that we can separate our ability to reason from other psychological and emotional capacities; and

  • it would seem that reasoning encompasses much more than a specific form of analysis and decision-making, to the point where distinctive features of reasoning can actually contradict other features of reasoning.

This last point is rather complex and involved. For a deep (academic) dive, see a compelling study by Neil Levy on epistemic deference and climate change.

This is not to say we should dispense with reason or its cultivation. Rather, we need to think about what it means to reason in broader terms.

One of the key maxims of hermeneutics, and its sister discipline phenomenology, is that we are at the most fundamental level embodied beings. Embodiment means that our abilities to think, sense, and feel are mediated by our body—its contact with others, its recognition of things near and remote, its receptivity to movement, space, color, sound, and so on.

“It [the body] opens me onto the world . . . either allowing perceived things to appear or making me dependent on things I lack and of which I experience the need and desire because they are elsewhere or even nowhere in the world.”

—Ricoeur, Fallible Man (Fordham UP, 1986: p. 19)

The body mediates an opening for human experience. Even to experience the simulation of bodily experience by means of technology relies on a prior experience of having understood what it means to be embodied.

Young boy wearing a gas mask, on his laptop, all alone
Image from Canva

So what happens when the body is hampered or prevented from performing this role of mediator?

Our opening onto the world diminishes.

This can have significant consequences on how we understand ourselves, our relations to others, and how we treat the world around us.

Technological Mediation or Incapacitation?

You don’t need to rely on psychological and sociological research to realize how technology affects the way we interact with our surroundings and how we perceive ourselves and others

One of the methods of hermeneutics is to reflect on how our basic bodily experience is mediated. In fact, there is no such thing as a direct bodily experience. This is because at a brute physical level, we are constantly reacting and interacting with our surroundings as a way to get a sense of ourselves. Waking up in the morning is never a direct, immediate experience of being tired, but one factoring in the surroundings — like a dark and chilly morning, the sound of or the anticipation of percolating coffee, the smell of a light burnt roast, etc.

Our experience also passes through our thoughts and concepts. Brute physical features are interpreted by each of us per our preferences, past experiences, our hopes and our fears. “Not another chilly morning . . . how am I going to muster the energy to run? A nice, black cup of coffee will help me rally.”

Given the role of bodily mediation, we can see how certain forms of technology add a further layer of mediation of our relations and interrelations. But is it just an additional layer? Or, does technology also result in some form of incapacitation?

Here are some examples to consider.

1. Phone Alone

One of the most prominent instances of technological integration is the mobile or cellular phone.

Its paradox of "exceptionality", as the philosopher Dominic Smith, once put it, is captured by the fact that mobile phones are nothing like its historical predecessor, the telephone. In fact, we probably spend more time on our mobile phones doing other things besides talking — e.g. texting, watching films, taking photos, messaging on social media, playing games, listening to music or podcasts, etc.

Its ability to provide for so many uses is genuinely awe-inspiring. Yet because of this, it tends to absorb most of our voluntary and involuntary attention. When we are not deliberating using our phones, we habitually raise them into view to see if there are any messages or notifications; or when we’re waiting for a bus or for a traffic light to change, we automatically go for the phone to preoccupy the time.

Its manner of incapacitation?

Because it commands our attention by presenting so much to do via virtual media and entertainment, we tend to be oblivious to our immediate physical surroundings. In the worst cases, we use our phones despite physical situations or roles that demand some duty of care. Can you think of examples?

Driver holding looking at a phone while driving
Image from Canva

2. Can’t See the Forest for the GPS?

There’s an interesting study that was done by McGill University which found that constant use of GPS “negatively impacts spatial memory”.

But again, you don’t need a scientific study to confirm the kind of effect your driving app might be having on you.

Have you noticed that even though you may be driving to a location to which you have been before (using GPS), you don’t remember quite how to get there?

It’s probably because you were relying on the GPS to tell you how to get there, as opposed to remembering landmarks, street configurations, and physical distances. It makes one wonder how people got to where they wanted before GPS became widely used.

Navigation wasn’t just done by looking at a map. It involved remembering bits of the map and integrating them with physical surroundings — a form of prospective and contemporaneous imagination, which results in memory imagination that can recall how to get to a location. Such imagination is the application of abstract images to physical location and so provides a way of being bodily (and mentally) present as one winds their way.

3. When the Bot Speaks, People Don’t

Ted Chiang’s New Yorker article explaining how generative AI works is an excellent read, even if his account of AI chatbot training does not account for the full range of methods. One of his insights is how generative AI can have detrimental effects on our human capacity to articulate our ideas.

If AI chatbots can answer any question, students can use them to write the majority of their essays. Because such chatbots don’t take text verbatim from sources — but rather use interpolation and other training methods to predict what an answer to a human question should be — their responses are often uniquely composed. And of course, you can add a prompt to tell the chatbot to rewrite the response “as if it was a high school student”, etc.

“Having students write essays isn’t merely a way to test their grasp of the material; it gives them experience in articulating their thoughts. If students never have to write essays that we have all read before, they will never gain the skills needed to write something that we have never read.”

—Ted Chiang

Thinking and writing are forms of practice. If you don’t engage in them on a regular basis, the capacity to think in different ways, according to different applications and situations is diminished.

Ordering the Operations:

What We Can Do about Technological Incapacitation

A helpful way to determine how specific technologies are affecting us is to think of the order of operations involved when using a device. The further one moves away from the first order, the more technology increases our capability; yet, the more technology is mediating our ability to relate and interrelate.

What follows below is based on Philosophy2u’s own academic research. It’s important to bear in mind that bodily movement includes the cognitive and emotional elements discussed previously.

The first order is that which engages the body intimately such that movement, dexterity, and gesturing have an immediate, direct bearing on how something is done or achieved.

  • Use of simple machines and tools, for example, involves bodily movement that closely corresponds to the aim of the activity. Hammering requires a swinging motion of the arm as one grips the handle and aims for the head of a nail. The more aware one is of the bodily motion involved, the more one can refine the act of hammering: using elbow motion, along with a bent wrist, and of course, holding the nail appropriately.

The second order consists in bodily motion where there is an immediate, indirect bearing on how something is done. In other words, the performance of the action still requires a fair amount of bodily coordination, yet the effect of executing the action is somewhat disproportional to the human effort.

  • Complex mechanization is an example of this. Driving a car requires a good deal of bodily coordination; yet for the amount of bodily effort needed to drive, the increase in capacity to travel long distances in a short period of time is hugely disproportional.

The third order involves limited bodily engagement, where the motions required to execute an action often have little relation to the activity that produces the end result. For this reason, third-order operations are discontinuous and abstracted. Discontinuous means the actions we undertake have no discernible relation to the end we want to achieve. Abstracted means the sphere of doing is primarily virtual or digital, even though we may be acting from the technology in the physical presence of others.

  • Our instance above of having to write an essay involves cognitive and emotional intelligences in being able to understand a question and then to research and articulate an answer or argument. With generative AI, one doesn’t really need to know these things. Instead, successfully “writing” an argumentative essay involves being able to ask the AI chatbot to do it (discontinuous). And this can be quite nuanced, depending on the prompt ladder one follows. Moreover, the purpose of writing is to be able to think for oneself. So, having a chatbot do this for oneself means whatever wisdom or knowledge might have been gained remains in the AI generative sphere with little to no direct application for the writer (abstracted).

  • Or take the other example of using GPS. To get from “A” to “B” doesn’t really require one to know where each point is in relation to each other, either by landmarks or cardinal direction. Instead, its knowledge demand is on using the app (discontinuous). It navigates for oneself to the point where one doesn’t need to be fully aware of the surroundings (abstracted).

So, the question arises: What is the proportion of things you do that fit the different orders?

How This Can Be Applied

The ordering scheme can be a good self-diagnosis tool. If the majority of one’s bodily interactions or time spent throughout the day consists of third-order mediations, then it might be a sign to re-assess and re-focus. Chances are the discontinuous and abstracted nature of your daily actions is creating barriers to being fully present to the world and to others.

Addiction to texting and social media, inability to pay attention to physical presence, lack of confidence in articulating ideas, or anxieties about engaging or confronting others except by way of texting . . . all these are forms of technological incapacitation.

Yet, technological incapacitation does not have to be our fate. Balancing our use of technology according to the three orders can help create a freer relation to technology and a more meaningful life. Apparently, even AI chatbots think that is a good thing!

A response about technological anxiety by Claude 2
A response from Anthropic's Claude 2

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About the Author

Todd Mei (PhD) is former Associate Professor of Philosophy and is currently a researcher and consultant in meaningful work. He is founder of Philosophy2u. With over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and publishing in the philosophy of work and economics, existentialism, hermeneutics, and ethics, Todd enjoys bringing insight, innovation, and worklife revolution to organizations, businesses, and individuals.

This blog and its content are protected under the Creative Commons license and may be used, adapted, or copied without permission of its creator so long as appropriate credit to the creator is given and an indication of any changes made is stated. The blog and its content cannot be used for commercial purposes.

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