“We are as gods…”

Earlier today, my friends were putting their house back together after the party last night, and called me up to ask me where I had put something while cleaning up yesterday afternoon. I told them, hung up, and then thought about what had just happened. It felt almost like something out of a religious myth, where people had made a plea to the heavens for information, and their request had been granted.

I’m reminded of a similar incident last summer when Jofish and I called up our friend Bats from the Home Depot aisle to get his advice on which products we should be buying for our home improvement project. Thirty years ago, we would have been reliant on the salesperson in the store; instead, we were able to consult the most knowledgeable person we know on the subject of construction. It seemed unremarkable at the time, but in retrospect, it shows how technology has made us much more powerful. Anything known by anybody we know can be shared with us at the push of a button. Our intelligence has become multiplied and distributed across dozens if not hundreds of people.

Stories like this make me feel like we are starting to achieve the aspirations espoused by the Whole Earth Catalog when they said “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it”. While none of us are omniscient, the oracles of Google and Wikipedia certainly grant us knowledge. I can pull out my cell phone and within seconds get the answer to almost any question, no matter how trivial (at the party last night, there was a dispute over who sang “Don’t you want me?”, quickly revealed by Google to be Human League). Think about how fantastic it would look to somebody even fifty years ago for me to consult a pocket-sized device and be able to read off so much information.

On a more personal level, we have more tools than ever to know what our friends are doing. I can see what my friends are thinking on blogs and LiveJournal. I can get real-time status updates from Facebook or Twitter. I can even see what they’re doing by looking at their pictures on Flickr. For instance, pictures from last night’s party are already popping up on Facebook, and they were up on Flickr this morning, so only one day later you can see images from an event at which you weren’t present. While it may not be omniscience, it can certainly feel god-like at times.

There are downsides to having this much access to information. It’s easy to become sucked into the flood of information and never do anything with the information gained. One can easily spend all day following the exploits of people around the world (I have a particular weakness for following Chicago sports). We have created this surfeit of information following the American mottos of “More is better” and “Too much is never enough”, but it’s unclear we know what to do with this information access. If we are becoming like gods, we need to learn how to become good at it, and figure out how to turn our partial omniscience (oxymoronic?) into action.

Perhaps omniscience is not a state to which we should aspire. It’s hard to resist the temptation to gather more information in the hopes that the next piece of information will determine what we should do next. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to know everything, but instead to quickly discern the most critical piece of information and figure out how to learn that. When Jofish and I were looking for home improvement advice, we could have spent days doing research. Instead, we called Bats, and used his expertise to sort through the different possibilities quickly.

We still haven’t learned how to live with these increased powers granted to us by technology. Our cultural and societal values are still trying to catch up, as is demonstrated by the various debates over privacy with regard to Facebook and MySpace. Another example of our struggles to deal with the implications of technology is the debates over stem-cell research and the questions raised by genetic engineering. How would we behave if we had the powers of gods? How should gods behave? We may have to answer these questions over the next few decades, especially if those who believe in nanotech or the Singularity turn out to be prescient.

5 thoughts on ““We are as gods…”

  1. Hrm. This sentence really sticks out to me:

    “t’s hard to resist the temptation to gather more information in the hopes that the next piece of information will determine what we should do next.”

    I’ve found over the last few years that I’ll often not elect to do *something* – go to a movie, commit to hanging out with someone, etc. – because the thing that may come along next might be “better.” In some sense, I’m waiting for that perfect moment where all signs point to “yes.”

    The problem is, and I’m still working on internalizing this, is that that rarely happens. One time out of a hundred, there’s some perfect confluence of signs that point to exactly the right action to take at a given time. And when it works out like that, great!

    But I pass up a lot because I’m unwilling to make a half-day-long or day-long, or week-long commitment to something I’m not sure is the “right” thing to do. I’m trying, instead, to take those opportunities as they come, and *find* the best thing to do rather than wait for it to come to me.

    On a slightly different note, I’ve been wondering what, say, Google does to how we fundamentally value and process information.

    Obviously, there’s value in having the knowledge of something in your brain. You can draw connections, you can use it as experience on-the-fly, etc. But I have a friend who’s considered “smart” purely on his ability to recall trivia.

    To me, Google makes his particular “smartness” obsolete – he’s no better at drawing conclusions from those bits of trivia, he simply has them at his disposal. With access to Google, the playing field is completely level between us.

    On the other hand, I have a pretty specific subset of information (let’s say, videogame design-related crapulence), that I keep in my head, and I can both recall and transform that information into something new.

    The ability to keep that information in… uh… memory allows me to actually take that and use it in a …er… “transformative” way. If I had that information simply through Google searches, I don’t think I’d be able to really understand what it all meant.

    So, maybe it really doesn’t change how we use information – you need to really internalize some things in order to use them properly – but I suppose the distinction is that the ‘pure recall’ types are now more or less valueless – it’s what you do with the information, and how deeply you understand it that matters. Obvious, I suppose, now that I’ve had to write it down. 🙂

  2. Jessie, I’d be curious to hear what you have to say, but I’ll ask you next time I see you.

    Seppo, thanks for that observation about how pure memorization isn’t valuable any more. I hadn’t made that connection between this post and the post from a couple days ago where I extol the values of memorization and repetition. I think that post still stands, as it’s about the “need to really internalize some things in order to use them properly”. But your comment points out the need to deploy memorization strategically and in the service of a higher goal, not just to do it mechanically.

  3. I would like to comment extensively on this, but all I can manage at the moment is heartfelt agreement. This is a good topic! You should talk more about it sometime!

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