Intelligence in Google world

In a comment on my strategic intuition post, Seppo asked the interesting question, “How will Google change the way we *think*?” In particular, he notes that sheer accumulation of facts once was a metric of intelligence, but in a world where Google is accessible from our pocket phones, mere facts don’t have the value they once had. So Seppo asks what it means to be intelligent in the always-on Google world where we are practically omniscient? And how will our intelligence evolve to include Google?

One question is what is the value of facts? If I can look anything up in Google, then why bother remembering it myself? I think this one is pretty easy to address, as it’s essentially the question of why anybody should bother learning arithmetic when calculators are available. The reason to learn basic facts or techniques is that those basics need to be embedded into our subconscious as cognitive subroutines before we can build more advanced ideas upon those foundations. We can’t learn algebra unless we know arithmetic cold, and we can’t learn calculus until algebra is unconscious. I think the same holds true for networks of facts – if I just have a set of facts that I have looked up, I can’t see the interconnections between the facts and see the big picture patterns that relate those facts (this is my impression of what historians do). The only way to start seeing larger patterns is to have spent the time memorizing the basics until they are unconscious.

Seppo notes that critical thinking is another critical component of intelligence in a “sea of facts” world: “you need to be able to know where to get information, how valid that information is, the reliability of the source… and that comes from having a certain amount of that experience stored in your head where it can immediately be synthesized.” If you don’t have a core set of facts stored in your brain, you have no basis on which to evaluate new facts coming in. One of the consequences of the “sea of facts” is that people can pick and choose which facts they want to believe, and the facts that we place in our brain will be the filter by which we accept or reject new facts (Farhad Manjoo’s book True Enough points out that since we no longer share a common set of basic facts, reality itself is fracturing). A basic curriculum of facts is necessary to make sure we are all evaluating new facts with the same set of criteria.

In another example of the Internet providing fodder appropriate to my blog posts, the Atlantic just published an article by Nick Carr called “Is Google making us Stupid?”. Carr’s concern is that the river of information presented by Google and blogs and always-on connectivity has created such an overload that our minds are adapting by becoming browsers, grazing at the edge of the river. He worries that we are losing the ability to concentrate deeply, to read books, to handle anything that requires more than the typical 1.5 minutes necessary to read a web page. I’m less concerned than Carr because I think we will continue to adapt and evolve. One might argue that the same shortening of attention span happened with television (Clay Shirky makes a powerful argument that we took all the extra time and cognitive surplus created by productivity gains in the twentieth century and wasted them on television because we didn’t know what else to do) and we’re learning to adapt to that with longer form television like The Wire.

I think that our initial reaction to any new technology is to over-use it in the default mode presented by the technology. But over time, instead of adapting ourselves to the technology, we learn how to adapt the technology to suit us. Part of that is sheer familiarity – kids that grow up in Google world will adapt to it in ways that we can not even foresee yet. We who are coming to it as adults are always going to be non-natives that don’t speak the language. It’s not surprising that it feels clunky and awkward and threatening to us, as our brains were formed in a different time and in a different environment.

My personal take is that the way intelligence will evolve is by outsourcing. In a globalized world, companies succeed by focusing on using their limited resources to do what they do better than anybody else in the world and outsourcing anything not directly connected with that focus. Similarly, in Google world, an intelligent individual will load their brain and memory with the foundational facts and skills necessary for them to build the advanced skills they want, and outsource the rest either to the Internet or to other people (I’ve played around with these ideas before, in posts on how we extend our cognitive subroutines to use external objects or even other people). Adding in the recognition that we have a limited capacity in our consciousness and in our memory means that we need to outsource wisely and carefully; we need to recognize which concepts are non-core and can be looked up when necessary, and embed the remaining foundational concepts and skills into our subconscious.

Another interesting concept to me is how meta-information, the information about the information, will increase in value. What’s valuable about Google isn’t the information that it links to directly – it’s the sorting of that information by PageRank. That meta-information is what has driven Google to dominance. This interests me because I’m moving in that direction myself. I had a conversation with a coworker last week where I knew the answer to exactly zero of the questions that he asked me. But I knew precisely who did know the answer to each question, and was able to explain the relevant work each person was doing to the question. One of my roles at each of the companies where I have worked is to be a mini-Google, the place to start when you don’t know where to start, as I understood enough of each person’s work at the company to place it into the broader context. Like Google, I cache just enough information about a resource (information or person) to determine the utility, and link people to the actual resource if appropriate. Huh. Never put it in quite that way before, but that might be a good way to pitch my generalist skills.

This point is a bit more disjointed than I’d like, but I’m going to put it up anyway. I think there’s a lot of interesting thought to be done in this area, especially in developing tactics for maximizing brainpower in an always-on Google world. How do you use Google to augment your intelligence?

8 thoughts on “Intelligence in Google world

  1. “But over time, instead of adapting ourselves to the technology, we learn how to adapt the technology to suit us. Part of that is sheer familiarity – kids that grow up in Google world will adapt to it in ways that we can not even foresee yet.”

    That’s the thing for me. When I think about something like MySpace, though I’m starting to “get it,” it’s clear that people who “grew up with it” use it in a much more… integrated way than I’m ever going to. Same will be of other parts of the internet, including Google.

    Thing is, I’m not sure that current methods of teaching high school-aged kids really accounts for the presence of Google. Most papers and tests in HS are more about barfing back facts or segments of things that you were “fed,” and not about synthesizing those pieces into something new.

    It’ll be interesting to see how you *teach* a population that has so much information readily at their fingertips.

  2. Yeah, the question of education and teaching critical thinking is a really difficult one. I like Neil Postman’s idea of presenting multiple perspectives, and making students develop arguments for or against those perspectives (he suggests Creation Science in particular as a good candidate).

    And I agree that high school education is broken, but I kind of feel it was broken even before Google. K-12 education in the US is designed for an industrial society where learning how to do things by rote and to learn to do as one is told are valued skills. Learning by rote doesn’t work in a knowledge economy. I tend to feel that most smart people learn in spite of their education, not because of it.

  3. There was a pretty intriguing article in May’s Wired magazine, which has some relevance, on the question on how technology can supplement intelligence. The article focuses on this guy who uses computer assistance in learning to never forget what he learns, which prompts the journalist to this remark:
    “As a science fiction fan, I had always assumed that when computers supplemented our intelligence, it would be because we outsourced some of our memory to them. We would ask questions, and our machines would give oracular — or supremely practical — replies. Wozniak has discovered a different route. When he entrusts his mental life to a machine, it is not to throw off the burden of thought but to make his mind more swift. Extreme knowledge is not something for which he programs a computer but for which his computer is programming him.”

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