Around a decade ago, Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, wrote a series of thought-provoking articles on technological advancement for the New Yorker’s science and technology blog, Elements. In his first piece titled “If a Time Traveller Saw a Smartphone,” Wu presented a modified Turing test to explore the ongoing debate between advocates and critics of digital technology.

robot playing piano

The Turing Test

A Turing test, for those who don’t know, is a scenario devised to tell whether a computer could fool a human into thinking that it, too, was human. Central to the test is that the human tester needs to determine whether the computer or human on the other end of a chat sequence really “knows” what they are talking about, the alternative being that they are just spitting out pre-programmed responses.

Wu painted a hypothetical scenario in which a time traveler from 1914 encounters a woman who possesses immense knowledge about history, literature, languages, and exhibits exceptional mathematical abilities. To the time traveler, this woman appears to possess almost divine intelligence. However, the truth is that she is simply using a smartphone with an Internet connection.

Wu used this scenario to highlight the subjective nature of assessing whether we are becoming smarter as a result of technology. From the outside, a person with access to a smartphone or computer might seem smarter than us. But they might not really “know” any of the things they say to us, instead just regurgitating information as they get it.

Indigenous Peoples and New Technology

Wu concludes by acknowledging that technological augmentation comes with certain costs. To demonstrate this, Wu tells us about the Oji-Cree people in northern Canada. The Oji-Cree, he says, have experienced detrimental health and social effects due to modern technologies. The technologies that may have largely benefited other groups of people instead disrupted important practices and traditions among the Oji-Cree.

For Wu, this can serve as a warning about the consequences of technological evolution. Each time we adopt a new technology, just as we look at what it can do for us, we need to see what it is taking us away from: immediate family, exercise, health, etc. Missoula-based writer Chris La Tray, a member of Montana’s Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, wrote about this very topic this week as he reflected on a writing retreat that he co-led along the banks of the Missouri river. The people who had inhabited that land before Lewis and Clark arrived have been all but erased from the land. La Tray notes that these people may well have been as happy as us, living in harmony rather than dominance over the land.

Ways of Evolving

people using phone while standing

Wu tells us that we can think of “technological evolution” in ways that are similar to biological evolution. An important difference is that technological evolution is driven by human desires, which can be infinite and devoid of context, meaning that they don’t necessarily recognize and reflect the world around us. On the other hand, biological evolution is based on adaptation to our environment, meaning that destructive changes will eventually disappear from a population as more favorable traits win out in terms of resources and the ability to reproduce.

Another difference is that technological evolution is driven by the markets, meaning that large corporations can drive change depending on profits, even if they are not beneficial to consumers in the long-term. Wu points to the movie Wall-E as a representation of how this might arise: wherein people slowly become less and less capable of even basic bodily movement as they rely more and more on machines.

Again, as we get excited about new gadgets and technologies, we must ponder what the future cost might be.

“Tyranny of Tiny Tasks”

Wu also points to the work of Ruth Cowan, a historian of science and technology, to highlight how some convenient technologies result in a multitude of small tasks, leading to a “tyranny of tiny tasks” that are individually simple but collectively overwhelming.

An example that I recently went through was contacting my credit card company while traveling. In the past we just had cash, which was simple (inefficient in some ways and easily lost or stolen, but simple). Now I have a credit card that requirs 2-step verification for me to access my account; but I’m out of the US so my phone number won’t work, so I wound up calling through a different number and going through dozens of steps to verify my identity just so I could check my balance online.

For some people, credit cards become an even greater problem, as the ability to spend more than they earn at any given time allows for an accumulation of debt, often at high interest rates. Then extra work must be done to service that debt and initial convenience.

Others might think of smartphones, which open us to a world of convenience but cost an average of $500 (and up to and beyond $1000 for high-end ones) and last just three or four years on average. Before cell phones, we had landlines that cost $20 or so dollars and could easily last a decade. Some of us are old enough to have used rotary phones in the ‘80s that might have been first purchased in the ‘50s or ‘60s.

Smartphones put the world at our fingertips, but they also allow the world to reach out to us in the form of notifications, buzzing messages, and rings. Thanks to the software on our phones, advertisers can ever-more confidently manipulate us into buying the latest gadgets, promising yet more convenience.

Wu warns us that these technologies of convenience diminish the satisfaction we derive from our actions. “Looking something up” is no longer a big task that requires a trip to the computer or bookshelf. We no longer even have to “look up” to do it – we just stare down at our smartphone. For Wu and others, we have a biological need for challenges and stimulation that is lost as everything becomes available at our fingertips.


There is no easy way to escape modern technology, and many of us might not want to to begin with. However, we can grow increasingly mindful of the ways that it robs us of attention and flattens the complex textures of our physical world. We might intentionally limit our use of certain apps, or make a cash-envelope budget for ourselves to keep ourselves grounded in our physical world and limited finances. We also can think about ways to drive less and walk more. Moving, thinking, talking with friends can all help shape a vibrant, happy life that is lost when we are glued to devices.

Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.