Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Lost Art of Knowing Stuff

The internet is reshaping our minds.  Reconfiguring might be a better word.  A recent study shows that we don't learn things the way we once did.  We don't accumulate knowledge as our ancestors did.

We don't have to commit information to memory as in the past.  The web functions as a replacement for memory.   If we need a fact we can use a search engine.  Google or Yahoo or Bing will pull it up, we can read it, use it and discard it.

There's a real frailty attached to this sort of information sourcing.  It's not the forgetting, it's the not remembering.  What does it mean to read something but not to commit it to memory?  We have outsourced part of our memory function to cyberspace.  How much of our memory function are we abandoning?  What parts are we losing, what parts are retained?

Surely it's retained memory that provides the context we need to make sense of daily experiences.  We encounter many situations and things of which we already have some knowledge or familiarity.  The less we know, the more mysterious or foreign the subject may seem, the more poorly we may interact with it.  Our minds are with us all the time, our computers usually aren't.  Our minds access knowledge instantly, automatically, often effortlessly.  Our computers require protocols, keywords, reading and typing and even then often don't yield what we want on the first or even second attempt.

I am reminded of Tim Flannery's observation in Here on Earth that we're becoming a species of idiots.  We're becoming increasingly expert at doing one or two things and increasingly incompetent at doing the great many things needed even for life itself.  As idiots we become increasingly reliant on systems and others to do the myriad things we cannot do for ourselves.

As we lose the art of knowing stuff surely that can only hasten the onset of Flannery's world of high-functioning idiots.   How can the robots not take over?


Wendell Dryden said...

Remove the term "search engine", and the phrase, "Google or Yahoo or Bing will pull it up," and you have the classic (i.e., early Greek) warning against the use of writing and books.

What feeds our modern anti-tech memes? Not science and learning - these memes are markedly unscientific and populous. Not an anti-geek bias - at least, I don't think so. Frequently, there's an anti-youth bias - or, better, some variant on wanting to tell young people they're "doing it wrong." But, I don't know...

Maybe, as a culture, we just don't like new stuff?

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm still stuck with one foot on the dock, the other in the boat. The internet has become indispensible for me yet, when I key in on something that strikes me as critical, I usually wind up buying books to indulge my habit of delving.

Our web of information today is so vast, almost infinite, and yet it is necessarily shallow. No one tends to get very deep on the web because it doesn't lend itself to much beyond quick hits.

Do you think my criticism is a manifestation of bias? That's interesting.

I do accept Flannery's observation about a species of high-functioning idiots. My father's was probably the last generation that widely-knew how to use - and maintain/repair - their technology; how to raise and grow their own food - the stuff that mankind had to know for millennia that is now lost to us.

Is that bias driven? As for your final point, I think we do like new stuff which should be apparent by how readily we discard the stuff it replaces. Consider how little telephones changed in their first half century of mass use contrasted with how they're changing over the past two decades.

I'm still getting familiar with the latest Android smartphone only to read that, within months, it will be overtaken by new technology.

thwap said...

I've never been a details person.

But I think I waste too much time reading bite-sized thoughts online than i did reading in-depth analysis back in the 1980s and 1990s.

And I read pretty much only what I think I'll already agree with.

Anonymous said...

Only use a computer two hours a day if that. Other than that, still listen to the radio, don't have a television and read hard cover books from the library and still buy hard cover books as well as meet friends for discussion in a coffee shop. Turn my cell phone off at night and leave it home often and never, never use it in a restaurant. Many people no longer know what manners are when it comes to electronics. Many people think using cell phones in public makes them look very, very important. That smacks of not being sure of oneself.

The Mound of Sound said...

You're right, Thwap, it is bite-sized ideas online - easy to consume and easier to select for compatibility with one's own views.

I use my computer too much by virtue of it interfering with the time I have to read books. I'm too distractable for radio and I long ago washed my hands of TV news, except for BBC.

I neither tweet nor text message although I find it fascinating the number of young people who seem to walk on auto-pilot while engrossed with their phones. The idea of being constantly connected or at least accessible to many others is, for me, off-putting.

Purple library guy said...

I must say I was struck, like Dryden, by the similarity of this argument to one that could/would have been made in favour of the oral tradition as against this newfangled writing, which remembers the law and the epics for you. Of course, maybe those people had a point.

I spend a great deal of time on the internet. For me, it largely fills the function of a newspaper, and compared to the newspaper I think the articles I typically read online are far more relevant, intelligent, radical (both in the sense that they agree with my radical politics and in the sense that they go to the root of issues) than anything I would have been able to get my hands on in print years ago (let alone TV). It's hard for me to fit the articles and blog posts (including such blogs as "The Disaffected Lib") I read into the sort of "internet is just sound bites and tweets" narrative I'm seeing here. Maybe if I used Twitter or Facebook . . . but I don't.

But the core of this post is the idea of the internet as a kind of prosthetic memory, the use of which somehow atrophies the real thing. I don't buy it. I personally find this "Look up whatever you want right away" feature of the internet a very positive thing. I think it fosters creativity and, far from stopping memory, helps build the sort of crosslinked knowledge base that helps our thinking progress.
Time was, if my thinking, or conversation, brought me to some missing piece of knowledge I would just have to stop my train of thought there. I might possibly remember to find a book or encyclopedia later and follow up on whatever I'd been thinking about, but very likely I'd just forget about it and never find out the thing I was wondering about.

Now, I look it up on wikipedia or something, right as my train of thought is going. I add the relevant facts to my mental landscape while whatever associations are still percolating in my mind. I really don't find that the fact that I could readily look it up causes me to instantly forget about it. If anything it's probably the opposite--because the new thing I learn has somewhat "live" associations with other thoughts and facts, it sticks better.

Now, young people do a lot of really trivial stuff on the internet. But big deal. Young people used to spend hours watching incredibly trivial TV--at least the internet is often interactive, calling for some kind of thought and action, and involves some print. And sure, they do facebook and stuff--but then, they used to just spend hours gossiping about nothing on the phone. I don't really think it's that different. Overall, the "internet is ruining this generation" thing seems akin to a moral panic. My daughter, for one, strikes me as generally much more sophisticated and thoughtful than, well, anyone I knew in high school when I was her age.

I do sometimes wonder about the phenomenon of little entertainment systems, whether portable game systems, music players, phones, or smartphones that do all that stuff and more. They have an impact on the way people relate to one another (or fail to) in public space. But even there, I wonder if I'm not exaggerating. I mean sure, nowadays people on the bus or the subway are busily texting or playing some game or reading some internet thing, barely aware that everyone else is even there. But back when, instead they all sort of studiedly stared through one another and otherwise did nothing at all. Was that really so much better?

Purple library guy said...

OK, I should admit--I also extensively use the internet to read trashy Japanese romance comics. So it's not totally benign. But then, those things are originally physical--they're scanned.

Wendell Dryden said...

"My father's was probably the last generation that widely-knew how to..."

Do you suppose that's a feature of rural versus urban society? We had cities and such in the 1950s and 1960s, of course. But Canada was still largely "rural" in terms of its culture. (They used to spend money on TV and radio shows produced for farmers and fishermen - can you imagine!) By the 1980s, I think, so many people had fled the countryside that Canada became an "urban" country. At that point, maybe, we lost our generalists?

Of course, I'm just making this up, so it might not be true. But I wonder what the skill-set of the average Victorian Londoner was like compared to, say, that of the people settling the Canadian West.

Anyway, my only real point is that we all often talk and think in ways that reveal broad themes or myths or something. Sometimes I call this a "bias" because it seems to involve filtering what we see. Sometimes I use the term "meme" because of the way these popular notions seem to spread. The anti-tech meme strikes me as particularly interesting when - in other contexts - some Canadians are struggling to talk with their neighbours about the science of climate change. I'm interested in the level of science and tech know-how a culture needs to maintain a functioning democracy in the face of environmental threats.

Last thought: the day after your post, my local CBC website ran a short piece on distracted drivers. The first third gave us a horrific account of someone badly injured when a driver dropped a coffee and tried to retrieve it. The piece moved swiftly on to claim that cellphone use is a source of distraction and a cause of traffic accidents. There was a stat cited - 17% increase - though it wasn't clear what exactly had increased by 17%. The first 20 or so comments - which was as far as I read - were about the lack of enforcement of texting and driving laws. But no one - neither the story's author, nor the people interviewed, or the commentors - ever suggested banning coffee in vehicles. That's what an anti-tech bias looks like. :)

The Mound of Sound said...

Hell's bells, PLG, I'm the wrong one to ever discuss youth habits. I finished high school and went into the air force at 17 (my parents had to sign me in) and the only thing I really knew was motorcycles.

Like you I spend too much time online, mainly reading English-language newspapers and mags from around the world. I have a little trapline that begins with The Guardian, TorStar, BBC, CBC, Sydney Morning Herald, Spiegel.. on and on. Then again I'm retired and living in a quiet coastal town on VanIsl.

The internet obviously empowers us to access information far more easily than ever. Some of us do that but I wonder how many?

How many of us grasped the fundamentals of boolean logic before the arrival of search engines? How much control over our search for information have we surrendered to the algorithms of Google or Bing? When information is power, what is the power of being able to channel what information we receive? Google, it seems, never opens the window too widely.

Wendell, this is undoubtedly tied up in part by our urbanization, our retreat from the farms and the advent of the disposable economy. We once fixed things - plugs & points or tuning a carb, for example - but that fixable technology is long gone. It used to be that the person behind the wheel was the intelligence in a car. Now that's a shared function.

My current motorcycle, for example, monitors the loading on each axle a hundred times a second and uses that information to allocate braking force between the front and rear wheel. Coupled with ABS it affords incredible precision and traction but it's much less fun and you never get to kick the back end out drifting in corners either. As I ride I'm sharing the decision-making process with a computer that regulates the brakes, one that regulates the electrical system, one that operates the fuel-injection system, another that senses the quality of the fuel and adjusts the firing of the dual spark plugs accordingly (a nice feature in Third World places where the gas is sometimes crap). Yet if any of those decision-makers goes down, my bike is more or less a fancy anchor.

I think we have become too accustomed to change, accepting its trade-off vulnerabilities too easily.

My father told me of growing up on his dad's smallholding - about a hundred acres. As a child he saw his father plough his field with a horse - essentially medieval technology. Before tractors arrived farmers had to have a mix of crops and livestock to get by, usually with some dairy. They had to know how to fix what they used, how to grow crops, how to tend animals from breeding to birth to death.

As a kid I attended threshing bees at my maternal grandparents' farm. Threshing bees, imagine. Co-operative labour, freely given.

Oh yes, on your point about a Victorian Londoner compared to a prairie settler, you might enjoy a fine book, "The Remittance Men". It is about n'er do well sons of British aristocracy in the very late 19th, pre WWI 20th century.

Usually out of a desire to see them off, their fathers would set them up with a stipend and send them off to the Canadian west to seek their fortune.

Entrepreneurs, more often hucksters, would place ads in London newspapers about great ranching opportunities or offering land for orchards in the Okanagan and these young men came in droves.

They would take the train from Montreal, usually stopping in Winnipeg where other hustlers would outfit them in outlandish cowboy duds.

When they reached their destination some of them did eke out a living ranching or growing fruit but most soon realized they could live quite comfortably on their remittance and so they did.

Then WWI broke out and in a burst of patriotic fervor they simply left Canada and they never returned.

Purple library guy said...

I do agree about the ability to do various relatively basic tasks. It's partly urbanization. Partly it's just that higher technology tends to have more layers of complexity. Part may be planned obsolescence, although a lot of the obsolescence just translates to crappy quality--toasters aren't really that much more complicated than they ever were, but they sure do last less time before they die.

But I do think it's more than that too, like the technology has been deliberately engineered to wall us off from it. Take cars for instance. Time was, car repair was a very common urban skill. As a kid/teen I wasn't interested, but an awful lot of people were. Things is, though, you could do it. The cars were maintainable by amateurs. Now they have these computer diagnostic thingies, and the software is closed, you're not allowed to get at the diagnostics without you have a special very expensive computer in which three quarters of the expense is just because they don't want every Tom Dick and PLG to have one. Production is very centralized, whether of stuff or electricity.

There are some countercurrents. There's the Free/Open Source software movement. And I like the whole fashion for urban gardening. Even if it never ends up producing serious amounts of food, and really I don't see how it can, it will teach a lot of people some skills and some connection to food. Maker culture is interesting, along with things like 3d printers that potentially let us do some of our own manufacturing. And I'm excited at the way solar power keeps getting cheaper; as it becomes cost effective for the average person that not only avoids CO2 but also decentralizes power production, moves the (literal and figurative) power into the hands of the people.

The Mound of Sound said...

I can give you an excellent example of how we've been "walled off" by technology. My bike, a BMW, had a failure in the main power control module. I looked around for a scrap bike and found a few where I thought I could just get a used module for cheap and be on my way. Wrong.

It turns out these modules are individually coded to a bike's VIN number. If you needed a replacement you had to get it from the factory in Germany, coded for your bike. That was a handy way to lighten my wallet by $800. Pull the old module out, plug the new module in, and then the dealer's computer was needed to initialize all the components to the module.