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“Tip-of-the-Tongue Syndrome,” Transactive Memory, and How the Internet Is Making Us Smarter | Brain Pickings


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... in Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (public library), Clive Thompson — one of the finest technology writers I know, with regular bylines for Wired and The New York Times — makes a powerful and rigorously thought out counterpoint. He argues that our technological tools — from search engines to status updates to sophisticated artificial intelligence that defeats the world’s best chess players — are now inextricably linked to our minds, working in tandem with them and profoundly changing the way we remember, learn, and “act upon that knowledge emotionally, intellectually, and politically,” and this is a promising rather than perilous thing.

He writes in the introduction:

These tools can make even the amateurs among us radically smarter than we’d be on our own, assuming (and this is a big assumption) we understand how they work. At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.

charleyharper.jpg

Reminds me of those "train your brain" games. 

The question, then, becomes: How do we get people interested in things beyond their existing interests? (Curiously, this has been the Brain Pickings mission since the very beginning in 2005.) Thompson considers:

In an ideal world, we’d all fit the Renaissance model — we’d be curious about everything, filled with diverse knowledge and thus absorbing all current events and culture like sponges. But this battle is age-old, because it’s ultimately not just technological. It’s cultural and moral and spiritual; “getting young people to care about the hard stuff” is a struggle that goes back centuries and requires constant societal arguments and work. It’s not that our media and technological environment don’t matter, of course. But the vintage of this problem indicates that the solution isn’t merely in the media environment either.

In the epilogue, Thompson offers his ultimate take on that solution, at once romantic and beautifully grounded in critical thinking:

Understanding how to use new tools for thought requires not just a critical eye, but curiosity and experimentation. … A tool’s most transformative uses generally take us by surprise.

[…]

How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers?

Think of harder questions.

A lot of creativity is just bringing some knowledge from one domain into another domains.

The more interests we have, the more potential for cross pollination.

True that.  

Additionally, for those of us with non-mathy brains, computers force us to adopt their logic.  It's been a good and very exciting upgrade for me.  

I love that you used the word upgrade. You upgraded yourself!

Yes, I believe the internet is making us smarter.  Yet I don't agree that technology always changes our minds for the better or for the worse.  Technology can be helpful, or not, it just depends:

1. As an executive chef I learned to value and prize well-crafted tools, selecting those right for the job  and being skilled enough to know that one can make any tool not specifically designed for a chore still work well and get the job done in a pinch.  Good tools and technologies, whatever their provenance and vintage, are important, but they are also just tools that should not be confused in value with the skilled hand and mind that wields them.  Creative minds become smarter through indifference to any tools and technologies and most often in the absence of them.

I've also met many amazing chefs who similarly prize quality of ingredients as their smartest choice--more important than tools or technologies in making any dish.  Part of their esteem for quality is embedded in keeping it simple and not overwhelming the dish with too many ingredients, or with ingredients that just don't work well together.  Chefs care less about ingredient purity for purity's sake as we do the skill of coaxing ingredients to emit their perfect notes in whatever harmony or contrasts we intend--color, aroma, temperature, texture, taste, etc.--that then combines into a most enjoyable meal.  This savoir faire develops to a point that master chefs can make almost any few ingredients work well together.  It's also interesting how many top chefs prefer a few classic technologies amidst the ever greater cacophony of innovations in their kitchens--creatively smarter as a chef can be aided or hindered by technology and tools.  So, are master artisans of creativity smarter or not for their preferences of simpler tools?  

2.  Contrast chef mastery and creative smartness in the back of the house with hostesses, waiters and bus boys, who often eagerly embrace new technologies, in the front of the house.  Do such people prefer technologies because they are not expected to be creative, but just desire to become faster and more efficient wherever it pays them better to do so, i.e. in getting the dishes out to the diners on time and turning the table for the next party once more every evening?  Smarter in the front of the house means being faster in turning tables and generating revenues and that smarter is also valuable for the creative chef.  Being faster is what most newer technologies are serving up very well, but is it valuable for all of us to be faster in all that we do--does the choice of a more creative life of mastery or a more efficient one of higher frequency dictate our dispositions towards adopting or eschewing new technologies and being connected to them?

Even without the utility question, our urge for being on the bleeding edge of novelty and convenience is a difficult one to resist.  For some with enough disposable income it becomes a consumer addiction that results in constant stimulation and an ensuing numbness to experience.  We're coming to believe that life without the newest technologies would be harder for many of us, but perhaps in reality it would be much more savory, fat and handsomely intelligible to our hand and mind.  Life with constant technology upgrades is certainly stimulating, but it can also quickly become an addictive obsession for unsatisfying noise.

As an innovation architect I've worked with human experience in many domains and people leading change always prefer balance in their scale and pacing of innovation.  There is no speed limit for change and creativity, just a relative readiness and capacity to not lose sight or hearing of desired signal amidst the greater technological cacophony around them.  

Perhaps we can still remember our own smarter creativity, or acts of innovation, as something that arises well-formed from within ourselves that is also enjoyable to share.  And for that act to extend any enduring equanimity from ourselves to others we might need take a little time unplugged, lest we feel like a Jersey cow being milked for our 11th gallon of the day.  Yes, it's increasingly more difficult to get unplugged, but once unplugged it doesn't take long to realize just the opposite of what Clive Thompson is saying--that our technological tools are NOT inextricably linked to our minds.

Well perhaps they already are for some, and maybe more of us really want to live that way.  Don't really know for sure, I'm just saying...

Wow, that is a great link. Thanks, I had forgotten it.

Very cool link, Geege, I like the artificial emotion idea and agree it would be a much more valuable exploration than artificial "intelligence" (I so hate using quotes like this, but then I'm rarely a slave to my passions).

It's funny how obsessed smart people become with studying the human brain.  They imagine it the seat of their own creative intelligence, or the key to wisdom about conscious life.  More things I tend to disagree with, especially when I factor my own experiences of body awareness and find intelligences beyond what I can think up in my own head.  We can find many examples of human creativity as being driven by emergent insight, rather than by raw, cognitive processing power or logical thinking.  Our language centers get way too much credit for creativity precisely because they write the post game narrative and our thoughts always dilute, distort, delete and detract from direct experience.  "Flow" is what happens whenever we muster enough will to shut our brain up, or at least banish it to the kids' table so we don't have to listen to the incessant chatter and can simply get on with better adult enjoyments of life.

More interesting biologically are our dual nervous systems, which broadcast and receive impulses with our world, and the enteric brain comprised in our intestines, which immediately interprets these signals (without routing them to the brain for a second opinion) and directly establishes clarity and awareness of our actions and repose with the environment. There is real meaning and value within the idea of "gut instinct" and cultivating an ability to feel it.  And you simply can't achieve a state of Flow by thinking yourself into a narrative of it.

Lastly, and perhaps most conclusively, is the interaction of "environment" upon our genes (epigenetics) and the unremarked fact that everywhere upon and throughout ourselves we humans are mostly environment and not mostly our own human gene cells--genes schmenes!  It's just our recipe, not the meal:

The human cells in our body (and that includes our soooo complex brain) are outnumbered by thousands of diverse species of micro-flora and micro-fauna cells that colonize our biological selves by a factor 10 to 1.  Scientists have just recently discovered that we all have several distinct communities of non-human gene biome, organic cells living upon and within us at all times, and that children's immune systems born cesarian (instead of vaginal birth) suffer grievously because such sterile births lack natural inoculation by their mother's own vaginal micro-flora.

These are just a few facts begging us to address our own organic complexity beyond the narcissism that our brains hold sway as the center, or are ever even capable enough of creating the evolutionary pathways we believe our technologies have established as proxy evidence for being fully human... 

Will we ever be able to make human intelligence artificially in the lab, or be capable of continued functioning as human beings ourselves, without all such organic complexity of "foreign" cells living among us, around us and subtly hardwired into our own biological design and destiny?  Maybe.  But what if it's the entire world that is a living, neural network and parallel processor for what matters most... 

Who knows who is hosting who?

No one knows... Yet. But the depth of the knowledge and the cross links keep improving.

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