Saturday, May 16, 2015

Is smart technology making us dumb?

We use search engines, like Google, every day.  Increasingly, when we start typing our search, Google even prompts us with alternatives as if it knows what we want to search for; like in the image below:


If a human did that to us, we would most likely yell at the person for interrupting our thought.  "Let me speak first" we would complain.  A fight could even ensue.  With Google, we are happy that it completes the thought for us?  Is Google thinking ahead for us good or bad?

I have always conveyed to students what I consider to be the most important function of education, which I recently did--yet again--in one of my classes:
 an important part of education is to know how to ask questions and to then knowing how to answer them.  This is important not merely because that's the way to earn a good letter-grade.  Nope, there is way more to that.  Throughout life, as we become more and more in-charge of our lives (and that autonomy rapidly increases with the proliferating digital technologies) the ability to think through, ask the right questions, and to then figure out the answers will be a prized attribute--in professional and personal lives.
To be able to ask the right question.  In work places, we have been at meetings where we have wondered, mostly within, "what is your point?"  At public forums, or even in C-Span if you watch those shows with the call-in features, it is quite common for the moderator to interrupt with "what's your question?"

I worry that because we have the likes of Google so easily available, we do not intentionally, purposefully, cultivate how to ask questions.  This is one of the many points that was brought up at the recent Intelligence Squared debates, which was on, well, the title of this post: Is smart technology making us dumb?  One of the debaters, Andrew Keen, argues:
 Nick was just saying that while the problems with Google or our search-centric culture is people are increasingly lazy . And what they're really lazy about is asking questions . What we're having is the automation of the act of asking a question . And that is one of the consequences or casualties of this digital revolution . And, of course, Socrates' greatest -- one of his greatest contributions to our culture was in the art of asking the question . That was the whole point of his philosophy, was it was about asking questions.
That's what knowledge was, asking questions . And as Nick has made it clear, we have forgotten, or we are forgetting how to ask questions, and that's extremely troubling.
To me "extremely troubling" is an understatement.

But then I ask myself whether it has always been the case that most humans couldn't be bothered about asking questions.  Most humans didn't care that they didn't know how to ask questions.  Thus, for instance, the frustration that Socrates had with Athenians who couldn't think.  Not knowing how to ask meaningful questions, and the apathy about that, are perhaps not new at all?  For the most part, humans have only been sheep and glad to follow whatever the shepherd said, be it out of ignorance or out of whatever divine the inspiration was?

Nicholas Carr was also a debater at that Intelligence Squared event--the "Nick" than Keen referred to.  Like most people, I came to know about Carr almost a decade ago, thanks to his lengthy essay in the Atlantic on whether Google is making us stupid.  In an interview with the BBC, Carr observes about automation:
the question isn't, “should we automate these sophisticated tasks?”, it’s “how should we use automation, how should we use the computer to complement human expertise, to offset the weaknesses and flaws in human thinking and behaviour, and also to ensure that we get the most out of our expertise by pushing ourselves to ever higher levels?”
We don’t want to become so dependent on software that we turn ourselves into watchers of computer monitors and fillers-out of checklists. Computers can play a very important role, here, because we are flawed; we do fall victim to biases or we overlook important information. But the danger is that you jump from that to saying, just let the computer do everything, which I think is the wrong course.
So, where are we headed?
I hope that, as individuals and as a society, we maintain a certain awareness of what is going on, and a certain curiosity about it, so that we can make decisions that are in our best long-term interest rather than always defaulting to convenience and speed and precision and efficiency.
I believe we should ask of our computers that they enrich our experience of life; that they open up new opportunities to us instead of turning us into passive watchers of screens. And in the end I do think that our latest technologies, if we demand more of them, can do what technologies and tools have done through human history, which is to make the world a more interesting place for us, and to make us better people. Ultimately, that is something that is up to us.
Yep. Whether smart technology is making us dumb, or better humans, is up to us. Each and every one of us. All of us.


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