Maybe it doesn’t matter that the internet is “making us stupid”

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2010

High-profile internet-nay-sayer and technology curmudgeon Nick Carr is cropping up all over the place; these things happen when one has a new book in the offing, y’know*. He’s the guy who claims that Google is making us stupid, that links embedded in HTML sap our ability to read and understand written content (cognitive penalties – a penalty that even the British can do properly, AMIRITE?), and much much more.

The conclusions of Carr’s new book, The Shallows – that, in essence, we’re acquiring a sort of attention deficit problem from being constantly immersed in a sea of bite-sized and interconnected info – have been given a few polite kickings, such as this one from Jonah Lehrer at the New York Times. I’ve not read The Shallows yet, though I plan to; nonetheless, from the quotes and reviews I’ve seen so far, it sounds to me like Carr is mapping the age-related degradation of his own mental faculties onto the world as a whole, and looking for something to blame.

I should add at this point that, although I disagree with a great number of Carr’s ideas, he’s a lucid thinker, and well worth reading. As Bruce Sterling points out, grumpy gadfly pundits like Carr are useful and necessary for a healthy scene, because the urge to prove them wrong drives further innovation, thinking, research and development. He’s at least as important and worth reading as the big-name webvangelists… who all naturally zapped back at Carr’s delinkification post with righteous wrath and snark. The joy of being a mere mortal is, surely, to watch from a safe point of vantage while the gods do battle… 😉

But back to the original point: there’s always a trade-off when we humans acquire new technologies or skills, and what’s missing from commentators decrying these apparent losses is any suggestion that we might be gaining something else – maybe something better – as part of the deal; technological symbiosis is not a zero-sum game, in other words. Peripherally illustrating the point, George Dvorsky points to some research that suggests that too good a memory is actually an evolutionary dead end, at least for foraging mammals:

These guys have created one of the first computer models to take into account a creature’s ability to remember the locations of past foraging successes and revisit them.

Their model shows that in a changing environment, revisiting old haunts on a regular basis is not the best strategy for a forager.

It turns out instead that a better approach strategy is to inject an element of randomness into a regular foraging pattern. This improves foraging efficiency by a factor of up to 7, say Boyer and Walsh.

Clearly, creatures of habit are not as successful as their opportunistic cousins.

That makes sense. If you rely on that same set of fruit trees for sustenance, then you are in trouble if these trees die or are stripped by rivals. So the constant search for new sources food pays off, even if it consumes large amounts of resources. “The model forager typically spends half of its traveling time revisiting previous places in an orderly way, an activity which is reminiscent of the travel routes used by real animals, ” say Boyer and Walsh.

They conclude that memory is useful because it allows foragers to find food without the effort of searching. “But excessive memory use prevents the forager from updating its knowledge in rapidly changing environments,” they say.

This reminds me of the central idea behind Peter Watts’ Blindsight – the implication that intelligence itself, which we tend to think of as the inevitable high pinnacle of evolutionary success, is actually a hideously inefficient means to genetic survival, and that as such, we’re something of an evolutionary dead end ourselves. Which reminds me in turn of me mentioning evolutionary “arms races” the other day; perhaps, instead of being in an arms race against our own cultural and technological output as a species, we’re entering a sort of counterbalancing symbiosis with it. Should we start considering technology as a part of ourselves rather than a separate thing? Are we not merely a species of cyborgs, but a cyborg species?

[ * The irony here being that almost all the discussion and promotion of Carr’s work that does him any good occurs… guess where? Hint: not in brick’n’mortar bookstores. ]

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