In the 1989 movie, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” Richard Pryor and Willy Wonka play two guys, each with a disability: Richard is blind, and Willy is deaf. Together, they find themselves at the scene of a murder holding the murder weapon. When the police arrest them, they realize they will have to depend on each other if they’re going to prove their innocence—neither can accomplish the task alone because of what he lacks.
Now most of us are neither deaf nor blind, but we do learn to compensate for our own weaknesses. These weaknesses can be anything from having a bad memory or a bad sense of direction to being bad at keeping up with friends or not knowing how to cook.
Eventually we find ways around our weaknesses though—often by finding friends who can make up for what we lack. Two heads, we say, are better than one. Sometimes we call this “synergy.” The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For Richard and Willy, this harmony bound them together. They were better off together. But after a while they also realized something else: They came to depend on each other.
In most relationships, synergy plays out a bit more subtly. On airplanes, pilots are paired with navigators—think, Maverick and Goose—and together they accomplish more than both could separately. Sports commentators trade off—generating synergy by having both a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator. Synergy often develops between couples in such a way that they begin to anticipate each other’s needs, and even each other’s responses. She may be especially good with directions while he adds some humor when they get lost; or maybe he’s good at organizing the finances while she gives generously to those in need. Sadly, for many, when their spouse dies, they often describe the feeling as “losing half of myself.”
The book of Ecclesiastes put it this way, “Two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone?” We depend on others to fill in for the places we lack. That’s normal. It’s human. Especially in long-term relationships and communities, we begin to trust others to pick up our slack. People fall into roles within their communities. They play different roles depending on what needs of the group has.
When I was a little boy, we lived in a small town. When an electronic appliance of ours broke, my parents unplugged it and we drove it over to Joe Thompson’s house. Joe Thompson was an elderly man who wore stained overalls, a patched shirt, and cap that slouched on top his head. From the back seat of the car, I watched my mom or dad walk the toaster up the driveway to Joe’s garage. They’d hand it to him and talk for a bit. He’d turn it over in his knobby hands and then take it in his shop. A few days later, we’d pick it up, ready to plug in again.
With Joe Thompson around, my parents’ first instinct was to repair the appliance, not replace it. Others in the community depended on Joe Thompson too. That familiarity comes with staying in one place for a while; it creates a sort of synergy. And it’s cheaper. Just like Richard and Willy did in the movie, knowledge and abilities can be distributed within a couple, a community, or a company. And, in time, they come to depend on each other’s expertise.
Cognitive scientists have a term for this phenomenon: “socially distributed cognition.” The interdependence that Richard and Willy develop is an extreme example of this. Each one has capacities that the other lacks. Their relationship gives them each access to more resources than they have alone. And once they become accustomed to the other’s strengths, they begin to use and account for them as their own. They take those strengths for granted in some sense, and they factor them into their practical reasoning for the future.
Today, Wikipedia is one of the most popular manifestations of socially distributed cognition. In about a decade, the website has supplanted Encyclopedia Britannica by gathering the collective knowledge of millions of contributors and compiling it into billions of articles.
But socially distributed cognition plays out in more dynamic ways too. For example, a couple weeks ago, I posted on Facebook that I didn’t know how to eat a pomegranate. Within minutes, a colleague dropped by my office and explained his process. Meanwhile, about 5 different people offered directions, one included a YouTube tutorial, and others reiterated what my colleague had said. In no time, I had everything I needed to enjoy my pomegranate, including consensus on the best way to do it.
Here’s why all this matters. Richard and Willy depended on each other. Now imagine that one of them isn’t a human but a robot instead. This is what has happened with things like smartphones. As technology has developed, one half of the human relationship has been replaced, outsourced to databases like Google Maps. We’ve exchanged people for technologies. And we’ve come to depend on these technologies. We factor them into our thinking, just as we would a real person.
In other words, we have real relationships with technology. They are functionally no different from purely human ones.
As we latch on to these technologies, the human ties that once bound people together are severed . They are obsolete. With each severed tie, the fabric we call society is weakened, or at least made synthetic. We don’t need each other like we used to: We have technology instead. (Thus, in many cases today shared interests are the only thing keeping us together: hence affinity-based groups, special interest groups, market segmentation, demographics, and higher divorce rates. But none has the force of need.)
More and more, devices comprise large parts of our distributed cognition. Our technologies have integrated themselves into our daily lives and activities much like people once did. Remember the widow who said, “I feel like half of myself is missing”? There’s a reason that people say the same thing today when they lose their iPhones: “I felt like my right arm was cut off” or “I feel lost without it.”
Relationships with technology are just as real as being married.
The last lines of the movie:
Richard: “So tell me, how does it feel to be handicapped?”
Willy: “I’m not handicapped: I have you.”
A few years ago, after I’d gotten my first smartphone, I was out for dinner with a friend who’d never been to my house. We had driven separately, so standing there in the parking lot I was giving her directions to my place. I found myself feeling impatient with her because I kept having to repeat details. Explaining each turn felt arduous and annoying, and I was wishing she had a smartphone. “That would be so much easier,” I thought. And to tell the truth, I wasn’t sure if it was the third or fourth streetlight that she needed to turn at. I hadn’t really paid attention. I hadn’t needed to.
Like Richard and Willy had done, I’d grown accustomed to my smartphone. And now in a moment bereft of its conveniences, I found myself annoyed and ill-tempered. Instead of appreciating my friend’s needs and the way they drew us together, I was irritated by real people like her. Sure, I needed to simply be more gracious, but my technology never asked that of me, so I’d gotten out of practice. It’s hard to go back to being patient and kind and handicapped, even if there’s more grace to be found there.