Wednesday, September 21, 2005

(Non) Intelligence in the Internet age

As per boingboing, c(pipe)net is running a thought piece on how technology is affecting our ability to think, asking: Is technology making us smarter, or dumber?
"It's true we don't remember anything anymore, but we don't need to," said [Jeff] Hawkins, the co-founder of Palm Computing and author of a book called "On Intelligence."

"We might one day sit around and reminisce about having to remember phone numbers, but it's not a bad thing. It frees us up to think about other things. The brain has a limited capacity, if you give it high-level tools, it will work on high-level problems," he said.

This is indeed a bad thing. Has the Butlerian Jihad taught us nothing?

(Other than, yes, I will use any excuse to make a gratuitous Dune reference.)

From where I sit, I think that people are pretty dumb (even smart people), and anything that causes us to use our brains less makes us dumberer.

Sure, technology can free us from the mundane drudgery of remembering things, spelling things correctly and doing arithmetic; if you think the brain is a computer with limited system resources, that may work for you. In fact, I'm going to forget how to spell "reminisce" so I can use those resources to go work out some orbital mechanics problems.

Maybe it's just my misanthropic view of human nature. Then again, I think history is on my side. The digital revolution gives us the Internet, potentially the most empowering, democratizing, liberating communications medium out there. It was supposed to be a utopia, and we use it to find porn. (I'm looking directly at you, Mr. Nicholas "Being Digital" Negroponte.)

In my nonexpert personal experience, the brain is more like a muscle than a computer. By doing stupid crap like algebra and spelling, you're training the brain for more rigorous applications. And if you stop doing the scut work, your brain atrophies.

I'm reminded of a Donald Rumsfeld quote, for which he got a lot of flak because it sounded funny, but which always made a lot of sense to me (and not just in the Yogi Berra way):

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

There's a difference between forgetting something, and not knowing you've forgotten something, or not knowing something, and not knowing that you don't know it. If you don't remember a phone number, is it because you can remember and simply choose not to, or have you lost that capability completely? I think that losing the capability makes us less human.

This doesn't even take into account the observation that technology tends to fail us at the most inopportune times.

Perhaps it's just my own fears. I rarely use spellcheck, but I was seriously hobbled when AOL's dictionary interface recently changed, disallowing wildcard lookups. I hadn't realized how much I relied on it as a crutch. (Fortunately, it's back now.)

I make a conscious effort to balance my checkbook by hand, but I always use a calculator to check my work. And I usually find something wrong, in the form of a stupid arithmetic error.

I remember working as a cashier at Barnes & Noble; the power went out, so we went to hand calculators and sales slips. (Nowadays, they probably would have just closed the store.) I had an unbelievably hard time making change, especially when someone would give me extra money so they'd get change in a more convenient form. (I do this all the time, and the responses range from disbelief, to a resigned "I don't care, the computer will tell me what to do.")

I'm out of things to say, so using the time-honored device of hacks everywhere, I am going to close with a quote, also from Dune, so I don't have to come up with a conclusion of my own:

"Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of Man's mind"


avocadoinparadise said...

Good post! Bravo! (From an addicted spell check user who writes down phone numbers.)

Zex said...

I'm of the opinion that we change the structure of thought when we use technology. There is a book by Mr Feynman which describes how he beat a man using an abacus in complex math using his head because he "understood" numbers whereas the abacus user 'understood" the abacus but not numbers however both came at the answer correctly. I believe in using the most efficient method possible to do work, but I don't think fastest is always most efficient. Just like moving too fast into technology can cause problems, (x-rays killed researchers) So too can jumping straight into computing.

Anonymous said...

This article could have been an interesting social commentary on technology use, in till you mentioned you used AOL and undermined yourself.

Less of the banter though, technology is far from the influential cause of stupidity, we're more than capable of producing that without technology.

Joelogon said...

Anon - thank you for your completely uninspired, valueless and content-free comment.