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.


Anne in Salem said...

Despite my belief that most people can learn most topics, I am not sure this is learnable. Asking relevant and productive questions may be an inborn skill that can be enhanced, but I am not sure it can be learned. One must be curious and concerned about outcomes in order to ask good questions. One must recognize that there is something to question in the first place. Can this be learned? In my experience, with paid and volunteer work, I am not sure it can be. Too many people are satisfied with continuing the status quo, with using as little brain power as possible - lazy brains.

There are two corollaries. One must know to whom to direct the question, and one must be willing to pursue or create the answer. The former sometimes is obvious, but the latter takes significant mental energy, energy that many people are content not to expend. I have no idea how to change this. The lazy brains I know are satisfied being as such and have no desire and see no reason to change, to cultivate more thought. The curious, thinking people I know make life much richer.

As long as this blog is published, at least some people will be asking good questions.

Ramesh said...

Interesting post. Yes, "an important part of education is to know how to ask questions and to then knowing how to answer them". Both parts of the statement are very valid. The curiosity behind asking questions and the perseverance to finding the answers are both important.

I would venture to say that all people are curious - its an innate trait in humans. Its just that what they are curious about differs from person to person. For eg, lots of people are very curious about Justin Bieber, have asked lots of questions, amassed minute knowledge and have strong considered opinions.

"Elevating" that curiosity to more complex questions of life is the difficult bit. Most of us, self included, fall short either out of laziness or lack of intellect, or whatever. An outside influence (either a teacher, or friend or for that matter, this blog,) can be a great stimulant, I believe.

I am not so sure that technology is an inhibitor to this process. At least till now (who knows where artificial intelligence would lead us), technology makes getting facts (or biases) easier. A Google completing your question, or increased automation isn't a deterrent I submit. On the contrary, my curiosity has been increased by something I have found in a Google search which leads to more questions and more searching !

No doubt, you noticed the high praise in Anne's last sentence :)

gils said...

Asking the right questions and continuing to search for the right answers.. Guess that's what our gurukuls used to teach. But how many will learn in such kind of self study format?? Whoever does will surely benefit this society for sure. Any education that teaches to reduce the greed in society and respect for environment
is top one I guess.

Sriram Khé said...

It takes a lot of effort, indeed, to learn to ask questions, seek answers to them, evaluate the multiple answers ... I suppose it is easier to default into a lazy mode.

I disagree with Anne when she doubts that we can learn to ask questions. Because, well, that has been the whole point of my working with students--to show them that they, too, can and should learn that. Not all do that well, but they get it. I am convinced that if we make that an explicit goal in education, we can help kids and adults learn how to ask questions.

Thus, I agree with Ramesh that people are curious. But, with a qualifier--children are curious. We educated them out of that curiosity. Education is more like to make sure that kids (and adults) will conform. To make automatons out of humans. (Yes, I am channeling Pink Floyd's "The Wall"--we don't need no education, we don't need no thought control)

The curiosity that Ramesh writes about is of the gossipy kind. I agree with him that we have to figure out how to channel that gossipy curiosity into a higher level. Education fails at that, and perhaps has always mostly failed at that.

I have always loved the gurukula concept, Gils (a few years ago, I authored an op-ed also about it.) For many reasons, among which my favorite has always been this: the curious student goes in search of a teacher. Education is not "sold" and the focus is on the student and the student's learning, where the drive is internal. These are not the virtues of contemporary education.

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