Friday, February 19, 2010

The Internet and Intelligence

And here we have a rather interesting survey on the question of how the Internet will affect human intelligence over the next decade. An amazing 76 percent of the respondents (who were not a sampling of the public at large, but a select group of professionals and "experts") believed that the Internet will "enhance human intelligence" over the next 10 years. These people agreed that "as people are allowed unprecedented access to more information, they become smarter and make better choices".

Wow. I hardly know where to begin. The shortest and simplest response I can give is that this notion strikes me as being incredibly naive. This must be based on the overwhelming evidence that people have already begun to get smarter and make better choices over the last 15 years or so. (Yes, that is irony you detect.)

Two different people quoted in the article clarified this idea by stating that, while individuals would not necessarily get smarter, "as a society, we’ll get smarter collectively".

Okay. I have to confess it's not exactly clear to me what it means to say that society will "get smarter collectively". I suspect that this does not merely refer to the increase in information, which has been happening since the beginning of time, nor that these folks literally believe in a hive mind. I'm assuming they mean that the average intelligence of human beings will increase during the 2010s.

All I can say is that the 3/4 of these "experts" who subscribe to this view seem to have a pretty narrow idea of what intelligence is, if they believe it is something that can be increased by having access to lots of information. Much more intelligent is what Nicholas Carr, author of "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", said on the matter:

What the Net does is shift the emphasis of our intelligence, away from what might be called a meditative or contemplative intelligence and more toward what might be called a utilitarian intelligence. The price of zipping among lots of bits of information is a loss of depth in our thinking.

More on that later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Information Overload

In this article it is suggested that the idea of the Internet causing information overload is a myth, based on the fact that people have raised concerns about the deleterious mental effects of new technologies throughout history. It tells of Conrad Gessner, the 16th century Swiss scientist who compiled the Bibliotheca universalis, an index of every book that was available at the time, who worried that such an abundance of information was "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The article goes on to suggest that since someone felt this way about the world of printed books back in the 1500s, our own 21st century concerns about information overload are just as unfounded.

But wait. We are assuming that Gessner was wrong about the problem of information overload in his time. And we are concluding from this that we, too, must be mistaken about information overload caused by the Internet age. Well, what if Gessner was right to realize that the vast world of printed books was too much for any one human mind to handle? And what if the exponential expansion of Web sites and other media in our own time has only made an already monumental problem a thousand times worse?

In terms of human brain capacity, we are no more intelligent than our Cro-Magnon forebears (who were not grunting troglodytes but articulate human beings with finely crafted tools and weapons, religious beliefs and practices, and sophisticated art). Google may not be making us stupid, but it is not making us any smarter either.

The ironic result of our millenia of accumulating human knowledge is that the individual human being can know less and less of the knowledge that is available to the human race as a whole. This is a simple mathematical fact, given that the body of human knowledge keeps growing while the capacity and capability of the human brain remains constant.

So, while it might have been possible for a Cro-Magnon sage in a fire-lit Ice Age cavern to know basically all that a human being was capable of knowing at that point in time, the ability of any one person to master all of human knowledge has gradually shrunk to the point of impossibility (which it had reached at least by the invention of the printing press, if not sooner).

In short, the Information Age has only accelerated the further diminishment of the individual human being's knowledge as a proportion of all available human knowledge. Perhaps Google really is making us stupid.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Meaning of Fame

When I finished my most recent reading of Beowulf, I was struck by the closing passage, words of praise for the fallen hero (as translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland):

Thus the Geats, his hearth-companions,
grieved over the death of their lord;
they said that of all kings on earth
he was the kindest, the most gentle,
the most just to his people, the most eager for fame.

One thing I found striking about this passage was the choice of phrases like "kindest" and "most gentle" to describe the mighty warrior-king. The entire story focuses on Beowulf's great deeds in slaying the evil monster Grendel, then Grendel's equally evil and monstrous mother, and finally a fire-breathing dragon (which, it should go without saying, is evil and monstrous). And yet, among just four terms of praise lavished upon Beowulf at the very end of the poem, two of them have to do with how kind and gentle he was to his people. The poet evidently felt that these were two significant qualities that made Beowulf the noble hero that he was, one worthy of being remembered in a great epic.

The phrase "most just" is not so surprising. But what struck me the most about this passage was the very last phrase
(at least in this translation) of the entire long poem: the most eager for fame. To our modern ears this sounds like dubious praise. We are accustomed not to think of heroes as being "eager for fame". If anything, we like to think that heroes are humble and self-effacing, which adds to their heroism. So what does the poet mean when he praises the great hero Beowulf for his eagerness to be famous? He evidently sees this as a quality that we should admire Beowulf for, as much as for his kindness, gentleness, justice, and his mighty heroic deeds.

In our modern media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed culture, we tend to think of fame as something superficial... and understandably so. We have celebrities like Paris Hilton who, as the saying goes, are "famous for being famous". Andy Warhol (famously) said that in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. In reality TV shows we see a never-ending supply of people who want to be famous, not for any great accomplishment, but just for its own sake. In short, fame in our contemporary world has become completely divorced from what used to give fame its validity: greatness.

In the ancient world, and perhaps even in the modern world up until fairly recent times, fame was a much more meaningful quality. Not just anyone could become famous. Poets sang of great kings, warriors, and other heroic figures who accomplished great and mighty deeds, who provided their society with an example of nobility or virtue that the common man could look up to and be inspired by. Beowulf's eagerness for fame was nothing at all like the modern desire for instant celebrity based on nothing but self-interest and vanity. It was instead a passion to do great things, things that mattered and that were
worthy of being remembered, to be a person who contributed something valuable to his society. He had proven his fame-worthiness by putting his life on the line not once but three times against monsters that no other man was willing or able to face, and even more so by emerging victorious on all three occasions (though he also lost his life in his third and final battle, against the dragon). These were the kind of superhuman deeds that awed other men and made them wonder, "Who is this man Beowulf?" These were accomplishments that inspired the poet to memorialize him in a majestic poem, so that Beowulf's example could continue to inspire people throughout the generations and teach them the meaning of courage, self-sacrifice, nobility, and true greatness.

Aristotle talked about his ideal of the "great man". Among other virtues, he was characterized by the virtue of
magnanimity, meaning greatness of mind (or soul). One may also say that magnanimity entails a desire to accomplish great things. In itself, this desire is good, because great accomplishments ideally benefit society. The magnanimous man may even suffer or sacrifice for the sake of accomplishing his task. It is not about self-glorification and gratifying one's vanity and lust for attention (though these may be constant temptations). Being the "most eager for fame" simply meant that Beowulf had the strongest desire to (in the words of John Keating in Dead Poets Society) "make his life extraordinary". Fame was just the natural outcome, and the proof, of having done so.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Whence Tomorrowland?

On New Year's Day I told how I had come to realize the scope of the changes that had occurred during my lifetime, even if they were not the changes I and many others had imagined. It occurs to me that there is a significant difference in kind between the mid-20th century's vision of the future and the actual technological changes that have taken place. My wife Kara pointed out that our "progress" has essentially consisted of an accumulation of gadgets (like the ones I listed in the aforementioned post). But, as I also noted in that post, the look of things is basically the same. For the midcentury vision of tomorrow was to a large degree an aesthetic vision. Our streamlined, googie buildings, together with similarly futuristically styled clothes, vehicles, and yes, even household gadgets, would all communicate that we had arrived in the space age.

In the 50's, it probably seemed that modernist design (together with the fledgling space program) was well on the way to realizing this vision, and indeed the 50's futurist aesthetic is essentially a colorful and imaginative extension of midcentury modernism. It might have seemed logical to suppose that the modernist movement would evolve into something very much resembling the Googie or Tomorrowland aesthetic as the Space Age took us to other worlds while remodeling our earthly home in an exciting, fresh, and forward-looking style. Aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of our environment, has a profound effect on our psychology. Our built environment expresses and makes concrete our ideas and ideals and at the same time greatly influences our thinking and feeling. It's true that the Tomorrowland look is not the only one that might have provided a positive aesthetic for the 21st century, but no one came up with anything better in its place. Instead, it was given up for the anti-style and anti-vision of post-modernism.