Is Barry Jones obsolete?

Barry Jones is a human search engine. Crawling over thousands of pages of words and numbers, he commits the data to memory and indexes it for regurgitation on demand. "When Mozart’s name is mentioned", he says "a detailed entry appears in the screen in my head, Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, (1756-1791), Austrian composer, born in Salzburg …" But who needs a human search engine now that we have Google?

Today almost any educated person can match Jones’ ability to produce names and numbers on demand. For example, what is the population of Australia? Who was the twenty-first president of the United States? What is the capital of Burkino Faso? What is the largest marsupial in Tasmania? Name two members of the extinct marsupial family Yalkaparidontidae.

Being able to answer questions like these from memory is now more of a party trick than a marketable skill. And this raises a question — what other cognitive skills will end up being replaced by technology? Interpreting Pap smears? Translating user manuals? Navigating a cab around London?

With the shift from wetware to software, what will we lose as human beings? Neuroscientists have found that there’s a part of the brain that grows larger in London taxi drivers as they gain experience. If cab drivers move to satellite navigation, will their brains shrink?

In the latest edition of the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr wonders "Is Google Making Us Stupid?":

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Carr’s attention soon drifts to ancient Greece and the works of Plato where Socrates tells a story of two Egyptian Gods — Theuth and Thamus. See if you can read the whole thing without getting fidgety:

At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Did you skip that paragraph and jump straight to here? Never mind. Socrates’ point was that knowledge must be planted in person’s mind in order to be productive. A book has no intelligence. Unlike Barry Jones, it can’t answer questions or defend its arguments. A blog on the other hand …

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
trackback
13 years ago

[…] to concentrate on one thing for any length of time. I know cos Ive read bits about it on

JC
JC
13 years ago

If cab drivers move to satellite navigation, will their brains shrink?

But it’s also possible that the person doing the driving now will find some other useful job to do and cabbing will be done by someone whose brain doesn’t function like the present cabbie’s in terms of having a photographic memory abilities. Thats okay.

As for google…

The information you were looking for was once contained in a tree version of an encyclopedia. So google in terms of the examples you mentioned is simply a faster version of Britannica if you want to know the capital of Burkino Faso (and who really needs to unless you’re trying to initiate an arms sale or attempting a mining deal). Why waste time leafing through thick books for such info.

How about the speed of new knowledge hitting or the amount of interesting information you can now have at your fingertips compared to the rep-web age?

With the shift from wetware to software, what will we lose as human beings?

But what will we gain too? How about the ability to live longer life spans and soak up more information along the way?

Don’t forget that abilities such as strength and endurance were once prized possessions when living off the land. Now geeks are inheriting the earth.

I wouldn’t be too pessimistic if I were you. World GDP is accelerating which is good thing.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

Dont forget that abilities such as strength and endurance were once prized possessions when living off the land. Now geeks are inheriting the earth.

TO which I would add, don’t forget that this is the single biggest step forward for equality, ever. I still don’t understand why feminists don’t preach capitalism as the one true faith, poor dolts.

Don, Barry Jones always was obsolete. The Jesuits (or ancient poets) remembered incredible volumes of information because it was incredibly valuable to them to do so – but the encylopaedia made memory castles obsolete before Barry Jones was born.

Finall, software is still a long way off making decisions. So the person who can assimilate/process the most data is still at an advantage vis-s-vis his concurrent.

Colin Campbell
13 years ago

Google is very useful, but it is a tool. A levelling tool in a way since more people have access to more information more quickly. The key is how, why and in what way it is used to enhance our lives and those of others.

My kids use Google now and have instant access to things like what caterpillars eat when they found one in the garden and wanted to keep it for a few days. I think that is great. I still wonder whether reference books will go the way of the dinosaur? What will we do with our book cases. Currently we have DVDs,videos, CDs and books, all of which are potentially heading for extinction.

We will likely have more wall space for digital devices and art.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

Now geeks are inheriting the earth.

JC – Are you sure? Which occupational groups are benefiting most from increases in productivity?:

there was no relative increase in the starting salaries of engineering and science BAs in the 1980s relative to humanities BAs, and in fact the reverse was true. Further, there were no above-average wage increases for the occupational groups most directly involved with the development and use of computers, namely, engineers and math/computer. During 197997 fully half of the growth in the college wage premium can be attributed to the increased relative wage of the group called managers, and only 17 percent to the computer-related occupational groups.

Colette
13 years ago

Barry who?

The Worst of Perth
13 years ago

The “on the tip of my tongue” feeling has been destroyed by google, especially for song lyrics and movie actors.

JC
JC
13 years ago

Don

Why is the writer picking the 80’s and then stopping in 1997?

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Managers are geeks too. They’re just geeks with some social skills instead of none.

JC
JC
13 years ago

JC my guess is the dot com boom.

Yea, it’s my guess to, Jacques.

JM
JM
13 years ago

Jason (#12), speaking as a both a geek and a manager myself, I can assure you that managers – especially those with humanities backgrounds – are most definitely not geeks.

Some other form of alien lifeform perhaps, but geeks? No.

(I do lack social skills however, so maybe I’m not a real manager – cue drummer joke)*

* obscure pop culture reference which can be explained on request.

Mark Bahnisch
13 years ago

A book has no intelligence. Unlike Barry Jones, it cant answer questions or defend its arguments. A blog on the other hand

I assume you’re being ironic here, Don. Either that or the post is working with a very arid model of reading.

Roger Migently
13 years ago

I think the assertion is completely arse about. Barry Jones knows facts in a way which is useless except for the speed at which he can (could) regurgitate them in order to win competitions which tested the speed at which a person can regurgitate obscure facts. It’s a party trick which is sometimes lucrative, but it’s what you do with the facts that matters – the intelligence with which you use them. Of what values is it to know a sting of historical dates if all that gives you is the order things happened in? What you need to know is “what was going on here? Why and how did that happen? What were the consequences? What do I learn from these events about humanity?”

Years ago if you had a theory you had to hope that someone else knew something about it the subject. You had to have access to books and papers and individuals. Often those were somewhere else, on the other side of the world probably. The people might have been dead. So a diligent and intelligent and socially capable person would have been able to make just a few connections and draw out some faint conjectures. The working of the mind was limited to what you could get hold of. Today the access to the information and the people is not an issue at all. You can have almost all the relevant information and talk to almost all the relevant poeople within moments. What happens next is the important thing. The miond can really go to work on “real” and truly extensive materials. The brain has to create a hugely greater number of synapses to deal with it all. The mind can create a vastly greater, more creative and more substantial work than ever before. That is why we are becoming more intelligent, not less.

Almost anyone can access the brilliance of the greatest thinkers and authorities, living and dead. Access is no longer limited by our membership of societies and universities, or whatever. The internet is creating a more egalitarian society than ever. Who needs Barry?

Roger Migently
13 years ago

By the way, I’m actually a fan of Barry Jones. He is intelligent and wise and does use the facts he knows wisely (and I’m sure even he googles now and then). Indeed, don’t you agree, perhaps his humanity and wisdom are too great to survive amongst the kneejerk thuggery of national politics.

(PS: sorry for the typos above)

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Did you skip that paragraph and jump straight to here?

That’s exactly what I did. In fact I skimmed the whole thing and will return for a more thoughtful read later as it looks pretty interesting, and I didn’t want to read the whole of that ‘is Google making us stupid’ article in Atlantic when I ran across it.

But your sentence was spooky as it was just where my eye took me (after skipping the para – and the quote before).

Nice to have our own resident clairvoyant.

Anyway Don, what am I going to do now? And when will I return to this thread?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

Mark (#15) – Irony? You’ll need to help me out here. What did I mean?

Maybe I should be less free and more direct. Here are the words Plato gives to Socrates:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

I wish people could read Plato without suspicion. If the first place you ever read something by Plato is as a quote in a book by Derrida then you’ve missed out on something.

I hate the way students read texts knowing that they are ‘wrong’ and searching only for evidence of how they are wrong. If we can suspend disbelief when we read novels, why can’t we suspend suspicion when we read philosophy?

Maybe it is an ‘arid’ model or reading. But it’s an interesting one.

Ken Parish
Admin
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
13 years ago

Maybe it would be better to say a book is not a conversation, whereas a blog post often is, though whether it nevertheless exhibits Plato’s characteristic of a set piece speech that “the speaker always gives one unvarying answer” is another issue. Although it’s no doubt an oversimplification, I think you can mount an argument that the utility of a mode of communication is directly proportional to its dynamic/interactive aspects. For example, when is some institution going to publish a refereed scholarly journal online with a comment box facility and with articles containing embedded hyperlinks to other cited articles as a matter of course (given that most journals are now published online as well as in hard copy)?