In my ongoing effort to remember what I have read, some notes on: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.
By blogging about this book I am doing exactly what Thompson says we will do ever more of, extending human abilities through the use of technology. This is nothing new, the first killer app(lication) was the invention of writing.
Writing – The First Killer App
This six thousand-year old technology was created to aid in business and government administration and it had its detractors including Socrates. He feared that the written word would ‘kill off debate and dialectics’. Other detractors pointed to the loss of memory and enshrining errors. In the end Socrates was both right and wrong. While people lost the deep understanding of a few topics (often committing their few books to memory) they gained a more varied, complex and extensive knowledge of many topics. [pp. 116-120]
Singularity or Centaur?
More recent examples of technology besting humans has been in the realms of chess and Jeapordy. In, Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Big Blue in a tournament of six games. This is not entirely surprising, chess is a game that lends itself to brute force computing. While Kasparov was able to delay the inevitable by introducing some creative moves, in the end the weight of Big Blue crushed him.
But that is not the end of the story, Kasparov and amateurs came back and defeated other computers and chess masters – by working in concert with the machine. This blended the brute force of the machine (e.g. looking ahead a dozen moves) and the imagination of the human. Thompson calls this machine-man combination a centaur (a mythological creature. Its head, arms, and chest are those of a human and the rest of its body, including four legs, hindquarters, and a tail is like that of a horse, deer or dog).
In Thompson’s view we are all becoming centaurs. Every time we fact check something on our smart phone while watching TV or in conversation, we are blending technology with the human. Even ten years ago this was either not possible or not very convenient (at least without leaving the dinner table to run up to the computer and Google that fact in dispute. In the 1970’s my family kept a dictionary and encyclopedia at arm’s length to fact check dinner conversation).
To Thompson’s credit, he does not mention or go down the rabbit hole of the singularity. That is the point when humans and machines blend and we leave our corporeal existence for that of a machine. This is a good thing as I suspect that the singularity discussion is a red herring fraught with technological, practical and metaphysical challenges (would it be heaven or an eternal hell for your consciousness).
Perhaps the one area where we are becoming singularity’esque is the awareness for family, friends and colleagues through social media. Ambient awareness is defined as “awareness created through regular and constant reception, and/ or exchange of information fragments through social media”. Thus we have a sense of what someone is doing because of changes to their social media postings. For example, a break from posting breakfast updates may indicate they are unwell or a change in tone that their new relationship is doing well.
Although considered a new idea in the context of social media, I would argue that it is a re-packaging of perhaps one of the oldest attributes of the humans, tribal awareness. Although technology no longer requires us to be in the same village or hunting party, the ambient awareness is an extension of living and relying on those in close proximity to you.
Building on the tribal theme, Thompson identifies one risk of Ambient Awareness, homophilia, or seeking out those with the same opinions and points of view as your own. Social media makes homophilia worse because tools such as Facebook analyzes the contacts you pay attention to and highlights them. There is a self-reinforcing loop in which those who share your views are brought to the fore and those that don’t are dropped. [pp.230-231]
Remembering to Remember
Thompson does a great job describing how human memory works and does not work. A relevant point to this book is the importance of having memory jogs to help the brain recall information.This is because memory is constantly regenerating itself. We start with a gist of a recollection and then fill in the rest The filling in part may be factually accurate or we may change a detail that is then stored as part of the memory. Diaries, photographs Facebook postings and blogs (such as this one) are all part of the externalization of memory. We are moving from a time in which most of our lives were forgotten to when we must activity delete/forget a recording that we don’t want to keep. [pp. 26-28]
Thompson describes another class of individuals who purposely record every minute of their existence, lifeloggers. Wearing body cams, audio recorders – every minute of their life is recorded. The biggest challenge these individuals have is not in the recording (although there is some resistance to this) or storage, it is in retrieving on demand from the store. The solution seems to be another centaur. That is letting the machine record the details and then have it play back snippets which keep the grey matter in shape through retrieval.
Surveillance, SousVeillance and the Three C’s
One of the impacts of all of this recording is that governments have better tabs on what you are doing and you can keep tabs on what governments are doing. Police states are nothing new but they got a boost with the invention of the microphone and tape recorder. As political candidates have learned, drunken photos from a college party ten years ago may come back and haunt a candidacy for political office (or even job interview).
The opposite side of Surveillance is Sousveillance or watching from below. A CCTV may be used to record a riot but a hundreds of phone cameras can be used to record police excess. Beyond photos, Twitter, blogs and other tools have allowed for the tracking of human need and to organize protest and responses.
What has happened is a drastic cut to the cost of Coordination and Communication so as to exercise Control. Where as before a top down command and control model was needed, now a website and an integration to texts can do much of the same (for example https://www.ushahidi.com).
The Future Including New Literacy
While most of Thompson book is uplifting and reduces the worry about the impact of technology, he does have some cautions – in particularly when it comes to digital literacy. For example, the importance of teaching children critical thinking when it comes to digital information. This literacy is not only understanding information provided but also understanding how the tools are best used.
Smart-phones and externalization of knowledge will not make us dolts – but it is also not without risks. Thus, just like writing, the printing press and photography, we will need to figure the best ways to use the technologies. Thompson has written an excellent book that can prepare us for this future. Now 3 years old, hopefully it is a book he plans to update periodically so as to keep current with the technologies of the day.
All quotes are from: Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The Penguin Press, 2013.