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 …