Brilliant Ignorance

Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr wants to know. (I guess so he won’t be stupid.) His friends can’t read anything longer than a paragraph. Summaries. Quick access to information. He’s affected too, says he. (But not so much that he can’t write a long, thoughtful article for The Atlantic.)

The cover story of Wired’s most recent issue notes a related trend (without the angst). We don’t need theories anymore. We’ve got access to so much data and so much data-crunching capacity, that the sheer volume becomes qualitatively different and functions better than thinking. Satellite photos, weather forecasts, crop rotations, digital soil maps combine to make exceedingly accurate predictions of harvests. The Europe Media Monitor analyzes 40,000 articles a day looking for geotagged clusters of events to predict national or international crises.

Why complain? What’s Carr’s beef?

{The] assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

The subtitle of the 1976 book by the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum says it all: Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. Who needs to think when we’ve got information?

Carr steps back from the ledge, however, by the time he finishes his piece. Maybe it’s not all doom and gloom. Maybe.

Of course, I was tempted to skim the article myself. Friends and coworkers send me links all the time, and I can’t possibly take them all in. But I persevered with this one and was rewarded because some of his best insights come in the last few paragraphs.

Do we need to unplug? Maybe not permanently, but every once in a while, we do. We need to fast from the internet–for an afternoon, a day, a week. That gives the rest of our brains time to work and cook up insights that constant attention to data won’t allow. Wisdom without knowledge is impossible. Knowledge without wisdom is a frightening possibility.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

3 thoughts on “Brilliant Ignorance”

  1. Haven’t read (or skimmed) the article (yet, or ever (since Andy’s summed it up so nicely), but it reminds me of what Neil Postman predicted in “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. More and more I think what a prophetically insightful book that is.

  2. This puts me in mind of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in which the central problem was a labrynthine library and the villian turned out to be the librarian.

    Since we can’t possibly sort all the information for ourselves, we must have a guide. The fact that that guide places the most prominent information before us based on remuneration (in the form of advertising fees) is troubling.

    And who knows what undergrad math major can tweak the alogrithm to slant the results this way or that.

    Yet … I just used Google to find the correct spelling of “alogrithm.”

    Walt Kelly was right.

  3. And Google didn’t tell you, Lawrence, that the correct spelling is “algorithm”? Hmmm?

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