Internet: Brain Augmenter?

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An interesting article by Tim Wu in The New Yorker:

A well-educated time traveller from 1914 enters a room divided in half by a curtain. A scientist tells him that his task is to ascertain the intelligence of whoever is on the other side of the curtain by asking whatever questions he pleases.

The traveller’s queries are answered by a voice with an accent that he does not recognize (twenty-first-century American English). The woman on the other side of the curtain has an extraordinary memory. She can, without much delay, recite any passage from the Bible or Shakespeare. Her arithmetic skills are astonishing—difficult problems are solved in seconds. She is also able to speak many foreign languages, though her pronunciation is odd. Most impressive, perhaps, is her ability to describe almost any part of the Earth in great detail, as though she is viewing it from the sky. She is also proficient at connecting seemingly random concepts, and when the traveller asks her a question like “How can God be both good and omnipotent?” she can provide complex theoretical answers.

Based on this modified Turing test, our time traveller would conclude that, in the past century, the human race achieved a new level of superintelligence. Using lingo unavailable in 1914, (it was coined later by John von Neumann) he might conclude that the human race had reached a “singularity”—a point where it had gained an intelligence beyond the understanding of the 1914 mind.

The woman behind the curtain, is, of course, just one of us. That is to say, she is a regular human who has augmented her brain using two tools: her mobile phone and a connection to the Internet and, thus, to Web sites like Wikipedia, Google Maps, and Quora. To us, she is unremarkable, but to the man she is astonishing. With our machines, we are augmented humans and prosthetic gods, though we’re remarkably blasé about that fact, like anything we’re used to. Take away our tools, the argument goes, and we’re likely stupider than our friend from the early twentieth century, who has a longer attention span, may read and write Latin, and does arithmetic faster.

Go here to read the fascinating rest.  The internet of course does not augment our brains.  Like a book on a table it is a tool, but the effectiveness of the tool is based completely on the ability of the user to profit from it and to skillfully wield it.  Some people can become quite proficient at internet research and can put on a show of deep knowledge over a wide variety of topics, but it is only a show, an illusion.

For example, yesterday I was doing legal research on the question of whether a debtor in bankruptcy can keep money in a bank account that derives from social security.  This is a fairly hotly debated topic and I read about 20 cases on the subject on the internet, the cases ranging from Illinois state cases, to Illinois Federal bankruptcy cases, to Federal district and circuit court cases outside of Illinois.  Many of the cases would have been very difficult for a layman to interpret.  Even knowing the legal jargon and the appellate structure of both Illinois and the federal system, much of the all important distinctions and nuances of the cases would have escaped all but fairly seasoned practitioners of bankruptcy.

This of course is the problem of the internet:  it can give a user a thin surface knowledge of most subjects, but it really does not provide an expert level mastery of a topic that usually requires years of work and lots of practical experience.  The internet is a tool, but it is only one tool.  If we forget that fact, we take a convenience and an amusement, and make it a false idol.

More to explorer

14 Comments

  1. Instant information. Man still has the power to turn it off. While it may be addictive, the instant information not only is finite, it may be incorrect, both conditions not applicable to God.

  2. Half of the stuff you see on-line is half right. Still, it’s a better source than the post-modern academy and the lying, liberal media.

  3. “How did this peevishness about expertise come about, and how can it have gotten so immensely foolish?

    Some of it is purely due to the globalization of communication. There are no longer any gatekeepers: the journals and op-ed pages that were once strictly edited have been drowned under the weight of self-publishable blogs. There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper.

    Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.”

    Bingo. That is why any blog with comments needs moderation and contributors and commenters willing to correct comments that are factually incorrect.

  4. Paul Zummo: I loved every word. When I read of James Schall as his teacher, I knew it to be good. Tom Nichols has a sense of humor, humility and expertise. Thanks be to God and thank you too. (There is no “expertise” without humility and humor.)
    So, all those people chasing me may not be for my expertise.

  5. Interesting, and great link to the Federalist, but the cat video… I could only make it about 1/2 way through- hope I didn’t miss anything interesting!

  6. Personally, I am concerned about the turn in K-12 schools towards an over-reliance on online research by kids. Because they don’t know what they don’t know. For your amusement, I share:
    .
    My youngest got an assignment when he was in 5th grade to pick a “hero” and find information online about this hero during his technology class, to put together a short multimedia presentation for the other kids. He was telling me about the assignment and he said he hadn’t been able to find a good hero yet… so I suggested Winston Churchill. Civilian, World War II, Courage – it’s all good, right?
    .
    Well, he came home the next day and announced that there wasn’t anything online about Churchill, except for a few images. So he thought I had suggested a real dud. !!!
    .
    It turns out he had been directed to search in online periodicals… but he didn’t realize Churchill wouldn’t show up in any recent magazine stories, and there was no supervision from the teacher. (Probably a lot of other kids chose more recent heroes from sports or medicine, so it worked for them.)
    .
    I sure wish my kid had been able to go down to the school library to find a book about Churchill and spend an hour reading it. It would have been a much better use of his time. Hey, I would have settled for him spending five minutes reading an entry in the World Book Encyclopedia.
    .
    A similarly memorable event was the time in 6th grade when he got a group assignment to research Charles Babbage for his math class. The group did their research online, at school, without supervision, and when I later read their final presentation, it was clear the kids thought a “difference engine” was an internal combustion engine. They had devoted so much time and attention to their humorous Powerpoint they never found out that the “engine” performed calculations. They all got a passing grade, because: it was pass/fail for effort (camaraderie!) alone.
    .
    Anyhow, I learned my lesson: whether it’s ziggurats or hindus or Thomas Paine or viscosity (yes I could go on and on and on), I will continue to curate his Google searches.

  7. One other thing that I’ve begun to notice about those experts in the comments is that there seems to be an inverse proportion to one’s arrogance/confidence and actual knowledge. It’s quite delightful to read comments from folks steeped in absolute bone-dry ignorance who nonetheless breezily dismiss the rest of the horde as petty neanderthals.

  8. Paul, I didn’t know it had a name – the Dunning-Kruger effect. I always think of it as the Idiocracy effect. I don’t think it’s ever discussed in the movie, but it’s a running theme that the dumber a person is, the more he looks down on others for being dumb.

    As to the New Yorker article, I agree with a lot of it, but one thing that really strikes me is that the greatest concentration of knowledge online isn’t lucrative at all: Wikipedia. It has its errors, but shockingly few, and fewer all the time. It’s gotten a lot better. At this point, it’s unduplicatable. If they ever start charging a micropenny per link, they’d own Google in an hour.

  9. This evening, my youngest is researching the Lewis and Clark expedition online (because schools don’t use textbooks anymore), and he runs across this gem:
    July 11–12 – Second trial in new territory. Pvt. Alexander Hamilton Willard is on guard duty. Is charged with lying down and sleeping at his post whilst a sentinel. Punishable by death. He receives 10000000000 lashes for four straight days.
    I redirected him to better web sites.

  10. *twitch* Toxoplasmosis theory, again….
    Last time I found an actual checked against reality example of research, the actual infection of rate of Toxoplasmosis was a tiny, tiny fraction of that theorized– and that was in folks who were long term volunteers at pet sheltered focusing on cat!

  11. Online research does require either knowing good sources (NOT wikipedia!) or knowing enough to identify good information– a family friend’s kid did a project and ended up claiming cows had something like 15 stomachs and a lot of other extra body parts.

    My mom felt bad, because she’d assured the friend that online research was OK, because it had worked fine for her kids. (Who DID have the sense God gave an apple, at least in regards to cow biology.)

  12. Toxoplasmosis oh no! I almost brought that up but I also twitched! I thought I was the only one who would think of such a thing Foxfier! Seems like the cat/internet analogy just naturally led me there!
    – how cats/ internet can worm into your brain and make you seek more of them
    twitch

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