The Killer Apps

Sometimes our inventions change us.

Last night, the Beloved Spouse told me about a talk she had heard in which a neuroscientist said that she believes that gathering news and following social media on the internet, and even reading books on electronic devices, all have meaningfully different effects on our brains than reading old-fashioned newspapers and books. As we process information in new ways, our brains develop new muscles, if you will, and don’t develop other muscles.

This all sounded right to me: it is perfectly consistent with ideas about neuroplasticity that I had heard before – including the colorful example of a study of London cab drivers’ brains that showed that in the laborious and challenging act of memorizing the street map of London for their licenses, they had changed the wiring in their brains in ways that can be seen on brain scans.


A small number of inventions – killer apps for the human brain – have created today’s world. What’s important about these inventions is not the substance of what they nominally do, but the processes by which they enable knowledge to take shape and be shared.

The first such killer app was the evolution of complex, spoken language – specifically, words strung together in ways that enabled people to plan a combined hunt, say, or warn each other of dangers. Many animals are able to communicate distinguishable thoughts to other members of their species, but as best we can tell, only mankind has developed a complex vocabulary and sentence structures that vary sounds’ meanings. Arguably, it is precisely this ability that enabled our forebears to become fully human and to step to the top of the food chain.

The second was written language, which enabled information to be preserved and shared in much wider groups. To grasp how vital this change was, think of how quickly purely verbal information is distorted in the game ‘telephone’. Many human societies independently developed writing; some forms were easier, and therefore more efficient, than others. The better the writing system, the more readily and accurately information and ideas could be shared, so those cultures that developed better systems had distinct, if not necessarily decisive, advantages over the others.

The third was mathematics, which had always been something that was being written about (many of the earliest writings are along the lines of: ‘so-and-so paid taxes of X’); the revolution in mathematics really came with the invention of Arabic numerals which, for the first time, made complex equations a practical possibility. Like easier writing, better mathematical notation could confer huge advantages on the cultures that had it; there’s a lot that only they could figure out.

The fourth arose out of the invention of the printing press. With its introduction, suddenly information and ideas became widely and inexpensively distributable. Books – and the ability to read them – ceased being the exclusive province of the elites for the very simple reason that the changes in availability and cost made sharing information through writing more accessible to nearly all – and it didn’t take long for most people to understand the utility of knowing more.

With better and more widely shared information, all kinds of learning – and inventing – accelerated dramatically. Consequently, the invention of the printing press was central to conferring vast technological advantages on the European societies in which its use first spread. Before the invention of the printing press, Europe was an economic and cultural backwater relative to China and, arguably, the Arab lands; not long thereafter, Europe became dominant over those countries and the even less technologically advanced societies in sub-Saharan Africa and the newly discovered – as far as the Europeans were concerned – Americas. The printing press might not have looked like a weapon, but it was the most formidable one that had been invented to date.

A global understanding of the utility of the first four killer apps spread – but slowly, as cultures that didn’t have the more recent ones, and whose rulers often felt threatened by them, were gradually overwhelmed by those that did.

The fifth, seismic information revolution was the invention of the internet. With it, the price of information dropped to almost zero. Suddenly, the poorest people in the most obscure places in the globe could access knowledge that twenty years ago would have been known to only a few. The typical mobile phone today is said to have more computing power than sent astronauts to the moon, and can access vastly more data than is in any of the world’s libraries.

The creation of the internet – like the other killer apps, no doubt – has had hugely, but far from uniformly, beneficial effects. Once again, the pace of new inventions has accelerated, as people everywhere can quickly learn about what has worked, and what hasn’t. The good news is that more efficient processes mean greater prosperity; the bad news is that many previously secure ways of life are threatened by more efficient, internet-enabled means of producing the same, or better, goods than were previously available.

Other downsides to the internet: bad guys can share how-tos about making weapons of all kinds. Social media are to interpersonal relationships what pornography is to love. Consciously or otherwise, we find ourselves giving up much of the privacy that allows us to think for ourselves without fear of reprisal. We consume more information, but maybe think about it less. We depend on the internet for information that (like the map of London’s streets) previously we might have memorized; do these new circumstances lull us into habits of dependency? I think so.

In China, the government is already using a ‘social credit system’ of internet-sourced data to control the populace. This is the very stuff of Orwell’s nightmares.

With a handful of portals controlling most Westerners’ internet usage, we may not be far behind China’s attempts at squelching individuality. The dominant internet portals can – and do – control the information we see. This article highlight’s the Alphabet CEO’s view that he can – and maybe should – suppress dissent from the ‘climate consensus’.


People are always looking for information and inventions that are useful, and the five I’ve mentioned thus far have all proven to be spectacularly so. Through them, we have changed the world, and the world has, in turn, changed us. (Incidentally, I am not suggesting that the changes in individual brains that may have resulted from the regular use of these inventions caused our species to develop ever larger, more complex brains – learned traits are not heritable – but rather that evolution favored those who had the brains to make best use of the new technologies, eventually changing the species.) With the dispersal and ready accessibility of information of all kinds, ancient cultures are evolving, merging and disappearing before our very eyes. History is accelerating.

All of these inventions, except maybe the first, had effects far beyond anything that could have been anticipated by their inventors. These unanticipated consequences have grown in relative importance with each succeeding step.

The sixth great technological revolution – the application of artificial intelligence to everything from weaponry to social control – is already upon us. Our devices spy on us ceaselessly. Thought control is just a step or two away.

If we aren’t careful, our newest technologies may enrich us in material terms while depriving us of the freedoms that allow us to define our own identities. If we lose that ability, we may be richer, but will we still be fully human?


M.H. Johnston

2 comments to The Killer Apps

  • Bart  says:

    Fantastic post! This might be up there with the best yet. You have great insight into the world we live in today. God bless you!

  • DCS.  says:

    Agreed. This is a good one. Thanks for writing and sharing.

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