Does easier mean better: junk food algorithms and protecting our mental agility

Posted on 19/02/2013


brain exercise fitness & mental agility

“Technology is very seductive, and it is certainly changing the way things are designed and made and taught. The problem is when technology has seduced you away from thinking about things as deeply as you should”

Arthur Ganson

Given a shortcut or a way to avoid doing something, most people will take it. So with the Internet being so accessible, are Arthur Ganson or Nicholas Carr right when they say that Google is making us stupid?

Each time technology shortcuts our lives, a small group of people object. “This is not the way we should do things. The old way was better” say the purists. “It took longer, but it was far more noble”. So we find ourselves in a strange limbo between what’s easy, and finding new value in old traditions. Shoelaces, for example. Not the quickest or the tidiest way of fastening your shoes, but I doubt  they’ll be replaced by Velcro any time soon.

Search engines, however, have penetrated deeply into our lives and thought processes. With facts being readily available, it’s less important to know things and more important to be skilled at finding them. Does this mean we’re more stupid?

Or does it just raise the bar higher? Now we all have equal access to information, knowledge alone is of less value. It’s how you acquire it and how you use it that counts. So I don’t think Google is making us stupid.

In November last year, I came across the Yosarian Lives project. This is a new online tool being designed to improve our understanding of the world, not just consolidate what we already know. It does this by finding similarities in seemingly unrelated topics, helping the user to learn from other examples. (If that doesn’t make sense, just watch the video – that will). Stranger still, it’s not the only tool out there; a team from the University of Massachusetts are working on an “innovation assistant” program that tries to achieve the same thing. (Here’s Tony McCaffrey presenting the idea).

Here’s my dilemma: I don’t believe that Google is automatically making us more stupid: like libraries in the once analogue world, organising information online is actually a good thing. But when an algorithm like Yosarian Lives is helping us make the connections between information, that’s essentially doing the thinking for us.

I’m seriously excited about what a project like Yosarian Lives could do for learning and discovery. At the same time it removes even more of the “thinking burden” from us. How much of our though process should we surrender to machines and what should we retain in the face of increasingly advanced technology? What skills and faculties do we need to remain human?

I haven’t got much hope of answering this question, but I’ll leave you with this:

The human question comes down to how we see ourselves. We’re biological organisms so theoretically anything that takes away these 5 qualities that make us “alive” (moving, respiring, sensing, consuming, reproducing) is damaging our humanity.

Alternatively you can see humanity embodied in the characteristics we portray:

Adaptability. Creativity. Memory. Empathy.

Maybe it’s not something we have to worry about right now. Yossarian is definitely still in beta and is slightly too reliant on how stock photo libraries tag their content (answer:  badly) and user-generated relationships. But the intention is there. If Google trumped the know-it-all kid in school who could simply learn information, then Yosarian lives would be taking on the class genius. I’m not sure who’ll win.

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