Cop Macdonald comment:
Marc Prensky's bio
notes that among other things he is a "futurist, visionary, and inventor
in the critical areas of education and learning. His professional focus
is on reinventing the learning process to motivate today's students and
to better prepare them for their rapidly evolving future. As part of this
work, he has designed and built more than 50 software games for learning..."
the idea-stirring and thought-provoking article below, Marc Prensky examines
ways in which existing technologies and future developments in the digital
world could facilitate the development of wisdom and wise decison making.
This article first appeared in the February/March 2009 issue of Innovate:
Journal of Online Education, and if you would like to sign
up for a free subscription to that journal, you can access
article on the Innovate web site
as well as many others.
From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to
that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking
that created them.
In 2001, I published
"Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," a two-part article that
explained these terms as a way of understanding the deep differences between
the young people of today and many of their elders (Prensky 2001a,
Although many have found the terms useful, as we move further into the
21st century when all will have grown up in the era of digital technology,
the distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants will become
less relevant. Clearly, as we work to create and improve the future, we
need to imagine a new set of distinctions. I suggest we think in terms
of digital wisdom.
I believe, can be used to make us not just smarter but truly wiser. Digital
wisdom is a twofold concept, referring both to wisdom arising from
the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our innate
capacity and to wisdom in the prudent use of technology to enhance
our capabilities. Because of technology, wisdom seekers in the future
will benefit from unprecedented, instant access to ongoing worldwide discussions,
all of recorded history, everything ever written, massive libraries of
case studies and collected data, and highly realistic simulated experiences
equivalent to years or even centuries of actual experience. How and how
much they make use of these resources, how they filter through them to
find what they need, and how technology aids them will certainly play
an important role in determining the wisdom of their decisions and judgments.
Technology alone will not replace intuition, good judgment, problem-solving
abilities, and a clear moral compass. But in an unimaginably complex future,
the digitally unenhanced person, however wise, will not be able to access
the tools of wisdom that will be available to even the least wise digitally
Moreover, given that
the brain is now generally understood to be highly plastic, continually
adapting to the input it receives, it is possible that the brains of those
who interact with technology frequently will be restructured by that interaction.
The brains of wisdom seekers of the future will be fundamentally different,
in organization and in structure, than our brains are today. Future wisdom
seekers will be able to achieve today's level of wisdom without the cognitive
enhancements offered by increasingly sophisticated digital technology,
but that wisdom will not be sufficient, either in quality or in nature,
to navigate a complex, technologically advanced world.
We are all moving,
by fits and starts and each at our own speed, toward digital enhancement.
In many ways, we are already there; digital
enhancement is or will soon be available for just about everything
we do. This includesand here is the important partcognition.
Digital tools already extend and enhance our cognitive capabilities in
a number of ways. Digital technology enhances memory, for example, via
data input/output tools and electronic storage. Digital data-gathering
and decision-making tools enhance judgment by allowing us to gather more
data than we could on our own, helping us perform more complex analyses
than we could unaided, and increasing our power to ask "what if?"
and pursue all the implications of that question. Digital cognitive enhancement,
provided by laptop computers, online databases, three-dimensional virtual
simulations, online collaboration tools, PDAs, and a range of other, context-specific
tools, is a reality in every profession, even in nontechnical fields such
as law and the humanities (Exhibit 1).
We are already becoming
dependent on these enhancements. As philosophers Andy Clark and David
argue, "extended cognition is a core cognitive process, not an add-on
extra," as "the brain develops in a way that complements the
external structures and learns to play its role within a unified, densely
coupled system" ("3. Active Externalism," ¶17). As
I recently heard a teenager say, expressing this idea more colloquially,
"If I lose my cell phone, I lose half my brain." Many would
express the same sentiment in regard to a PDA or a laptop computer; we
are already embracing a basic level of digital enhancement, and we will
accept ever more sophisticated enhancements as technology continues to
These developing technologies,
which will connect us more directly to their power by linking to our brains
directly, are already here or on the horizon. Two recently released devices,
one produced by Smart
Brain Technologies and another by Emotive
Systems, allow players to control the action in video games using
their minds; NeuroSky
is working on another version of the technology. The U.S.
Air Force is experimenting with using similar technology to train
pilots in hands-off flying (Satnews Daily 2008).
Other emerging digital tools promise to facilitate communication and enhance
understanding; for example, voice-stress analysis tools will allow users
to perceive deception and automated translation utilities will help create
translations free of human bias. As these tools become widely available,
digital enhancement will become even more vital for everyone.
What should we call
this emerging digitally enhanced person? Homo
sapiens digital, or digital human, perhaps. The key to understanding
this development is to recognize that it includes both the digital and
the wise. As digital enhancements develop, so too will the concept and
practice of wisdom.
Wisdom, as any search
will quickly show, is a universal but ill-defined concept. Definitions
of wisdom fill entire volumes. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests
that wisdom's main component is judgment, referring to the "Capacity
of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct, soundness
of judgment in the choice of means and ends" (OED 1989). Philosopher
Robert Nozick (1990) suggests that wisdom lies in knowing what is important;
other definitions see wisdom as the ability to solve problemswhat
Aristotle called "practical wisdom" (Wikipedia 2009).
Some definitionsalthough not allattribute to wisdom a moral
component, locating wisdom in the ability to discern the "right"
or "healthy" thing to do. This is, of course, problematic since
agreement on moral issues is frequently difficult to come by. So wisdom
cannot be conclusively defined without a consideration of context. One
interesting definition of wisdom that is particularly useful in this discussion
comes from Howard Gardner (2000), who suggests that wisdom may be seen
in the breadth of issues considered in arriving at a judgment or decision.
Combining these sources, we can define wisdom as the ability to find practical,
creative, contextually appropriate, and emotionally satisfying solutions
to comlicated human problems (as Solomon famously did with the baby problem).
Many see it as a more complex kind of problem solving.
As technology becomes
more sophisticated, developing the capacity to help us make moral and
ethical choices as well as more pragmatic decisions, what we call "human
wisdom" will reach new levels. Some of that evolution will arise
from the breadth of resources available to the wisdom seeker. More development
will emerge from wider access to more experience, provided by hours of
exposure to realistic simulation, similar to that required for today's
airline pilots and astronauts. It is also possible that reflective capabilities
will themselves be enhanced; we are already seeing some evidence of this
possibility in the speed with which video game players review previous
games, searching for ways to improve before beginning the next game. Future
technological tools will allow people engaged in making judgments and
decisions to evaluate their decisions very quickly in light of collective
past experience, just as today financial strategies can be backtested
on the historical market. And given the enhanced communications possibilities,
wisdom will certainly involve a lot more sharing and testing of ideas
while they are in formation than is possible today.
Homo sapiens digital,
then, differs from today's human in two key aspects: He or she accepts
digital enhancement as an integral fact of human existence, and he or
she is digitally wise, both in the considered way he or she accesses the
power of digital enhancements to complement innate abilities and in the
way in which he or she uses enhancements to facilitate wiser decision
making. Digital wisdom transcends the generational divide defined by the
immigrant/native distinction. Many digital immigrants exhibit digital
wisdom. Barack Obama, who grew up in the pre-digital era, showed his digital
wisdom in enlisting the power of the Internet to enhance both his fundraising
ability and his connection with the American people. Understanding that
his judgment is enhanced by his ability to get instant feedback from his
closest friends and advisors, he has refused to give up his BlackBerry.
Rupert Murdoch, a self-confessed digital immigrant (Murdoch 2005),
has also shown digital wisdom in recognizing the need to add digital news-gathering
and dissemination tools to his media empire.
The point is that
while the need for wise people to discuss, define, compare, and evaluate
perspectives is not changing, the means by which they do so and the quality
of their efforts are growing more sophisticated because of digital technology.
As a result, the unenhanced brain is well on its way to becoming insufficient
for truly wise decision making. When we are all enhanced by implanted
lie detectors, logic evaluators, and executive function and memory enhancementsall
of which will likely arrive in our children's lifetimeswho among
us will be considered wise? The advantage will go, almost certainly, to
those who intelligently combine their innate capacities with their digital
So how can digital
technology enhance our minds and lead to greater wisdom? One way to answer
this question is to consider where our unenhanced wisdom fails us and
explore how technology can enhance our capabilities in those arenas.
As unenhanced humans,
we are limited in our perceptions and constrained by the processing power
and functioning of the human brain. As a result, we tend to go astray
in our thinking in ways that limit our wisdom; for example:
- We make decisions
based on only a portion of the available data.
- We make assumptions,
often inaccurate, about the thoughts or intentions of others.
- We depend on educated
guessing and verification (the traditional scientific method) to find
- We are limited
in our ability to predict the future and construct what-if scenarios.
- We cannot deal
well with complexity beyond a certain point.
- We cannot see,
hear, touch, feel, or smell beyond the range of our senses.
- We find it difficult
to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously.
- We have difficulty
separating emotional responses from rational conclusions.
- We forget.
Some of these failures
arise because we do not have access to necessary data, while others stem
from our inability to conduct complex analyses, derive full understanding
from the ever-increasing volumes of data available to us, understand others
fully, or access alternative perspectives. All of these factors reduce
our capacity to judge situations, evaluate outcomes, and make practical
decisions wisely. Fortunately, available and emerging digital tools can
allow us to overcome these deficiencies and attain true digital wisdom.
Enhancing Our Access
The human mind cannot
remember everything; detailed, voluminous data are quickly lost. In some
ways, this is good in that it forces us to be selective, but it also limits
our analytical capacity. Digital technology can help by providing databases
and algorithms that gather and process vast amounts of data far more efficiently
and thoroughly than the human brain can. Expert
systems are one example of sophisticated digital tools that can help
humans access a wider array of data. These systems gather the expertise
of hundreds of human experts in one program in order to provide a more
thorough assessment of a given situation than even a highly trained and
experienced professional might be able to offer. One example of such a
system is the Acute Physiology & Chronic Health Evaluation (APACHE)
system, which helps doctors allocate scarce intensive-care resources to
those patients most in need (Exhibit 2).
Few would consider it
wise to use an expert system such as APACHE as the only decision maker;
expert system technology is both imperfect and still in development. But
would it be wise for a human to make the decision without at least consulting
it? Wise decisions often involve not just ethical considerations but also
tradeoffs; in the context of a complex, delicate decision, such as the one
to remove a patient from intensive care, those tradeoffs can be difficult
to assess. Expert systems and other sophisticated analytical tools allow
for a fuller understanding of the risks and benefits inherent in such a
Enhancing our Ability
to Conduct Deeper Analyses
In an article provocatively
titled "The End of Theory," writer Chris Anderson (2008)
describes how the massive amounts of data now being collected and stored
by Google and others is allowing a new type of scientific analysis. In
many cases, scientists no longer have to make educated guesses, construct
hypotheses and models, and test them with data-based experiments and examples.
Instead, they can mine the complete set of data for patterns that reveal
effects, producing scientific conclusions without further experimentation
because they can rely on analysis of a complete, digitally stored data
set. In a similar way, Google's advertising tools draw valid and useful
conclusions about what works in advertising without actually knowing anything
either about what is advertised or about the projected consumers of the
advertising. The software draws conclusions based purely on sophisticated
analyses of available data; the analyses improve as the amount of data
increases (as it does exponentially), and the analysis tools improve as
well. This is the same principle, according to Anderson, that allows Google
to "translate languages without actually 'knowing' them (given equal
corpus data, Google can translate Klingon into Farsi as easily as it can
translate French into German)" (2008,
¶5). Here, too, the tools will improve as more data becomes available.
Imagine what will happen when the entire universe of everything ever written
is available for analysis.
This approach reverses
the generally accepted nature of the human/machine coupling. Rather than
the mind imagining possibilities that the data confirm or deny, the data
announce facts and relationships and the human looks for explanations
oras Google does with advertisingsimply uses the relationships
to achieve a goal without knowing or caring why they exist. Surely, such
ability should lead us to question what wisdom is in such situations and
to consider the relationship between mind and machine in producing wisdom
in a digital future. Future wisdom will involve as much skill in eliciting
relationships as in imagining them.
On the other hand,
there are areas where a human mind's ability to imagine relationships
will be crucial to attaining digital wisdom. From warfare to architecture
to politics, asking "what if?" has always been critical to understanding
complex systems, and human wisdom has always included the ability to what-if
well. While simulation, practiced for thousands of years in sandbox, mechanical,
and thought experiments, is a sophisticated way to explore possible interpretations
of data, unenhanced humans are limited in the number of options and end
states that they can explore in this way. Pairing human intelligence with
digital simulation allows the mind to progress further and faster. A person's
ability to create, interpret, and evaluate the models underlying the simulations
plays a large role in his or her ability to use them wisely. In the future,
more sophisticated simulation algorithms will allow humans to exercise
their imaginative capacity in ever-more complex what-if constructions,
allowing for more thorough exploration of possibilities and, in turn,
wiser decisions. With the introduction of modern simulation games such
as Sim City, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and Spore, this
kind of digital wisdom enhancement already begins at a very early age.
Enhancing Our Ability
to Plan and Prioritize
As the world becomes
more complex, planning and prioritization skills far beyond the capability
of the unenhanced human brain will be required; digital enhancements will
be needed to help us to anticipate second and third-order effects to which
the unaided mind may be blind. The full implications of massive undertakings
like human space travel, the construction of artificial cities in the
Arabian Sea, the building of huge machines such as large hadron colliders,
and complex financial dealings such as those that have recently wrought
havoc on the economy cannot be fully perceived or assessed by even the
wisest unaided minds. Alan Greenspan, for example, is widely considered
one of our wisest financial gurus, and yet, his assessment of the fundamental
workings of our economy was mistaken: "You know," he admitted
in a Congressional hearing in October 2008, "that's precisely the
reason I was shocked [by the economic downturn], because I have been going
more than 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was
working considerably well" (Leonhardt 2008).
Humans will require digital enhancement in order to achieve a full understanding
of these increasingly complex issues and a full sense of the practical
wisdom of pursuing them. We currently do not have, in many areas, either
the databases of past successes and failures, or the tools to analyze
them, that are required to enhance our wisdom and collective memorybut
we will going forward.
Enhancing Our Insight
One of the greatest
barriers to human understanding and communication is that we cannot see
inside another person's mind. This limitation gives rise to unintended
misunderstandings and allows people to employ all sorts of deceptive strategies,
both consciously and unconsciously. Some of the ways digital technology
is helping us overcome this barrier include various means of truth (or
lie) detection, multimodal communications, and digital readouts of our
own and others' brain waves. Already, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University
digital computer analyses of brain patterns captured by functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI)
scans, are able to tell what a person is thinking about (Mitchell et al.
2008). It is likely, according to these researchers, that our children
will, in their lifetimes, be able to read people's thoughts and even have
access to direct brain-to-brain communication. While these developments
will clearly raise ethical issues and privacy questions that will have
to be addressed, there can be little doubt that as people gain access
to and learn to take into account others' unspoken motives, thoughts,
needs, and judgments in their own thinking, their wisdom will increase.
Enhancing our Access
to Alternate Perspectives
The world is full
of things we cannot perceive with our unenhanced senses, things that are
too small, too large, too fast, too abstract, too dangerous, or too far
away. Exploring these things through digital enhancements will certainly
help expand both our understanding of these things and our knowledge of
how they can help or hurt us. It will also expand our ability to assume
multiple perspectivesto see things from more than one point of
viewand, hence, our wisdom. The perception of things outside our
normal sensory range can be enhanced digitally in numerous ways, from
manipulable three-dimensional simulations to digitally monitored biofeedback
controls that enhance mental and sensory states, which may also enhance
memory and emotional control. Access to alternative perspectives can also
be attained through increasingly sophisticated digital role playing, using
simulations in which people can experience difficult and critical situations
from various points of view.
There are undoubtedly
other ways in which digital technology will enhance our understanding
and wisdom. None of these tools will replace the human mind; rather, they
will enhance our quest for knowledge and our development of wisdom.
Objections to Digital
Not everyone accepts
the power of digital enhancement to make us both smarter and wiser. On
its July/August 2008 cover, The
Atlantic magazine asks "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" Google
serves as a stand-in for the Internet and digital technology more generally;
the author's concern is that digital enhancements such as the Internet
make our natural minds lazier and less able (Carr 2008a).
While that is certainly something we should guard against, we must also
bear in mind that new technologies have always raised similar objections;
as Carr points out, in Plato's The Phaedrus, Socrates objects
to writing on the basis that it undermines the memory.
In fact, what's happening
now is very much the opposite: Digital technology is making us smarter.
Steven Johnson has documented this in Everything Bad is Good For You
(2005), in which he argues that the new technologies associated with contemporary
popular culture, from video games to the Internet to television and film,
make far more cognitive demands on us than did past forms, thus increasing
our capabilities in a wide variety of cognitive tasks. As Johnson puts
it, "Today's popular culture may not be showing us the righteous
path. But it is making us smarter" (14). Socrates was correct in
his fear that writing would diminish our memories but shortsighted in
that concern. While we may remember less and memorize less readily than
did humans in Socrates's day, the addition of writing has made us considerably
wiser by expanding our collective memory and increasing ability to share
information across time and distance.
Worries that ubiquitous
GPS systems might diminish our map-reading ability or that spell checkers
and calculators will result in a generation that cannot spell or do mental
math are similarly shortsighted. Every enhancement comes with a trade-off:
We gave up huge mental memory banks when we started writing things down;
we gave up the ability to tell time by the sun when we began carrying
pocket watches. But we gained a set of shared cultural memories and a
more precise notion of time that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Digital
wisdom arises from the combination of the mind and digital tools; what
the unenhanced mind loses by outsourcing mundane tasks will be more than
made up for by the wisdom gained. Wisdom, and particularly practical wisdom,
must be understood in light of the digital enhancements that make it stronger.
Being Digitally Wise
So what constitutes
digital wisdom? What habits do the digitally wise use to advance their
capabilities and the capabilities of those around them? Can digital wisdom
Examples of digital wisdom
are all around us. Leaders are digitally wise when they use available techniques
to connect with their constituents for polling and to solicit contributions
and encourage participation, as Barack Obama did so well in the 2008 U.S.
presidential campaign. Journalists are digitally wise when they take advantage
of participative technologies such as blogs and wikis to enlarge their perspectives
and those of their audience. Nicolas Carr exhibited digital wisdom in posting
his notes and sources for his Atlantic article on his blog in response
to reader requests for more information (Carr 2008b).
Digital wisdom can be, and must be, learned and taught. As we offer more
courses in digital literacy, we should also offer students guidance in developing
digital wisdom. Parents and educators are digitally wise when they recognize
this imperative and prepare the children in their care for the futureeducators
by letting students learn by using new technologies, putting themselves
in the role of guides, context providers, and quality controllers, and parents
by recognizing the extent to which the future will be mediated by technology
and encouraging their children to use digital technology wisely.
The digitally wise
distinguish between digital wisdom and mere digital
cleverness, and they do their best to eradicate digital dumbness when
it arises (Exhibit 3). They know that
just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than
just knowing how to read words does. Digital wisdom means not just manipulating
technology easily or even creatively; it means making wiser decisions
because one is enhanced by technology. Therefore, the digitally wise look
for the cases where technology enhances thinking and understanding. No
digitally wise leader would make any major decision, no digitally wise
scientist would come to any conclusion without digital tools enhancing
their own thinking. They may rely on intuition, but that intuition is
informed, inspired, and supported by digital enhancements and by the additional
data digital tools provide. Those who are truly digitally wise do not
resist their digitally enhanced selves but accept them gladly, even as
they make careful judgments about what digital enhancements are appropriate
Being digitally wise
involves not only enhancing our natural capabilities with existing technologies
but also continuously identifying additional areas where our natural human
toolseven when they are developed to a very high levelcannot
do the job unaided. As new digital tools appear, especially ones that
take hold in a strong way, the digitally wise seek them out actively.
They investigate and evaluate the positives as well as the negatives of
new tools and figure out how to strike the balance that turns tools into
wisdom enhancers. The digitally wise also realize that the ability to
control digital technology, to bend it to their needs, is a key skill
in the digital age. As a result, they are interested in programming, in
the broadest sense of the word, that is, in making machines do what people
want them to do.
Within the lifetimes
of our children, more powerful digital mental enhancementsthe embedded
chips and brain manipulations of science fictionwill become a reality
just as gene manipulation, long considered a far-off dream, is with us
now. Just as we have begun to confront the ethical, moral, and scientific
challenges presented by genetic medicine, we will have to confront the
issue of digital wisdom sooner or later, and we will be better off doing
it sooner. Many of these enhancements will bring ethical dilemmas, but
the digitally wise will distinguish between true ethical issues (Is the
enhancement safe? Is it available equally to all?) and mere preferences
Nobody suggests that
people should stop using and improving their unaided minds, but I am opposed
to those who claim the unenhanced mind and unaided thinking are somehow
superior to the enhanced mind. To claim this is to deny all of human progress,
from the advent of writing to the printing press to the Internet. Thinking
and wisdom have become, in our age, a symbiosis of the human brain and
its digital enhancements.
I do not think technology
is wise in itself (although some day it may be) or that human thinking
is no longer necessary or important. It is through the interaction of
the human mind and digital technology that the digitally wise person is
coming to be. I believe it is time for the emerging digitally wise among
us, youth and adults alike, to embrace digital enhancement and to encourage
others to do so. With our eyes wide open to enhancement's potential harm
as well as its benefits, let us bring our colleagues, students, teachers,
parents, and peers to the digital wisdom of the twenty-first century.
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