Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, March 02, 2007

Sipping from an Ocean

I sit at my slightly untidy desk wondering: Am I smarter than my ancestors? Considering the fact that I have the world, so to speak, at my fingertips, that I can satisfy almost any bit of curiosity in my head simply by framing the question in my mind and then typing it into a search engine on my computer, shouldn't the question more appropriately be: Just how much smarter than my ancestors am I?

Of course, it is a very easy thing to waste my access to such an unparalleled wealth of knowledge. I could spend all my time searching for news of Britney's most recent mental collapse, or of the alarming rate of decomposition of the remains of Anna Nicole as the authorities race to put them in the ground before they become too repulsive to look at. Indeed, if we are to judge based upon the search terms most often entered into the search engines, these are the issues most people are concerned about. They will not grow in smarts, that is true.

However, the fact remains that some of us are making an attempt to take advantage of the incredible ease with which it is possible to learn new things from the Internet. My parents did not have this opportunity, and for most of my life, neither did I. But today I can attend lectures on particle physics by none other than Richard Feynman, winner of the 1965 Nobel prize for physics, and I can do so without leaving my chair. Tomorrow I can feast on the musings of Don Knuth, Stanford University's Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming. If a question occurs to me about how to repair a leak in my bathroom faucet, I can access hundreds of step-by-step instructions, with pictures, from a hundred different sources, in a matter of seconds. Somehow I think that this is significant development. But wait, there's more!

In the course of my day, I do not only increase my knowledge and understanding of physical reality and home repair. I also interact with other people. I read and assimilate their thoughts and feelings on a tub-full of topics. They read and assimilate mine. I find out what is going on in the world, and what people are saying and thinking about what is going on in the world.

Question: How is this changing me?

Question: How is this changing humanity?

I welcome your thoughts.


AlvaroF said...

Hi Barry,

I'd say we are smarter not because we have access to more information (that would mean society at large is smarter, or that technology is certainly smarter) but because we now better what to do with more information.

Anonymous said...

Hi Uncle Barry,

There is no doubt that information is more accessible now that it has ever been before. You've given some great examples of that. Just the other day, I bought a pomegranate. I'd never cleaned one myself and the prospect of doing so was baffling (pomegranates can seem quite impregnable, and I don't think any other fruit serves as an accurate reference point for how to break the thing open). Anyway, my point is that all I did was type "how to clean a pomegranate" into a google search enging and "voila"; the sweet innards were my for the plucking.

Perhaps this surplus of information does make us smarter than ever before if we want to define intelligence simply by the degree to which one can amass information. This definition may be sufficient for some, but the question I would rather ask is: "Is this era of informational excess making us more wise?"

I suppose a handy way to flesh out this distinction is to use a pop-culture example. The difference between intelligence and wisdom would be the difference between Matt Damon's Will from "Good Will Hunting" and Sean, his psychiatrist, played by Robin Williams. As a matter of fact, there's a great scene that, if you'll indulge me here, may shed some light on what I'm trying to say:

Sean: Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me... fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven't thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?

Will: No.

Sean: You're just a kid, you don't have the faintest idea what you're talkin' about.

Will: Why thank you.

Sean: It's all right. You've never been out of Boston.

Will: Nope.

Sean: So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't know what it's like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn't know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms "visiting hours" don't apply to you. You don't know about real loss, 'cause it only occurs when you've loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you... I don't see an intelligent, confident man... I see a cocky, scared (expletive)less kid. But you're a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my (*%#@)ing life apart. You're an orphan right?

[Will nods]

Sean: You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally... I don't give a (bleep) about all that, because you know what, I can't learn anything from you, I can't read in some (blank)in' book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I'm fascinated. I'm in. But you don't want to do that do you sport? You're terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.

Owen Barfield called this "chronological snobbery" -- the idea that our current society is more knowledgeable than any society that preceeded it. I see this all the time in literary theory and criticism. Graduate students, and often respected faculty members, read Foucault, Freud, Derrida, or Marx and assert that only now, with this new template for thinking, can we understand Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, Dickenson -- you name the author and I guarantee there’s some poststructural reading of him or her, and if there’s not it’s still making its way through the publishing house.

Placed in this context, thinking that we know now what our forefathers meant or would have meant if they had been as intelligent as we are is flatly adolescent. I’m sure you would know far more than me about this having raised children through adolescence. At some point we feel that we’ve learned enough to pass judgment on all sorts of things with impunity. I’m finding that growing into adulthood provides me with an opportunity to zoom out, if you will, from what I though I had a lock on in High School. With this adjusted perspective, I can see how foolish I was to make some of the assertions I made, and now it tempers my future claims.

So, while I’ll agree that our society has the potential to be smarter than it’s ever been, I would say that even if we realize our full potential, we may be just as philosophically impoverished as ever.


Barry Mahfood said...


You make some excellent points. I would say that we certainly have access to far more information than did previous generations, which is one of the things that makes us different from all other species, in that we have the ability, through language and now computer technology, to lay down all the information that we are accumulating, making it available to future generations to build upon. This is why our "tools" have evolved and are evolving more and more rapidly, because we use them to make better tools. How's that for a run-on sentence?

The question is how individuals choose to make use of the information available. It can certainly fail to make one wise in the sense I think you mean. The development of good judgement and sound character aren't things you'll acquire from the internet. But it can make you intelligent and knowledgeable, moreso than our ancestors, if we make "wise" use of it.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!