Sunday, November 25, 2007

We're Already Cyborgs

Sunday Food For Thought Dept.

Take a gander at a recent Wired Magazine article for something to chew on intellectually. "Your Outboard Brain Knows All" takes off from a recent study that shows that younger (and presumably more techy) folk have poorer memories than older ones:
This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative's birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.
That last sentence pretty much sums up the story. But if you'd like the explicit version:

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I'm talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we've outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us. [emphasis mine]

The author, it seems to me, is right. We've woken up in the future and are already linked into the net in ways that aren't so visually dramatic as we might have seen in Star Trek (and yes, that's "Jean Luc Picard" as Locutus Of Borg at the head of the entry) but are every bit as real socially and personally.

Not only do I google items when I am on the phone, my daughter calls me on the phone in order to have me google stuff for her when she traveling with her cell but without direct access to her own "outboard brain."

Another striking bit:
What's more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. For example, I've been blogging for four years, which means I've poured out about a million words' worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don't even remember writing. The machine helps me rediscover things I'd forgotten I knew — it's what author Cory Doctorow refers to as an "outboard brain."
It's a nice treat to find that occasionally a fiber topic I've searched for returns Lafayette Pro Fiber as the top hit. I am generally surprised at how much sense those guys make. ;-) I've learned to Google for my own work rather than make any effort at all to recall when and in what context I wrote something.

And it's not just the net. My laptop holds more of my life than I can easily recall existing--what was I doing in April 6 years ago? I don't know. But my iCal calendar program does. Ditto for birthdays or the last time I went to the doctor. When did I first run across a particular author? Well a content search of my laptop will reveal the date I first entered anything by him in email, an article, or my old hand-made HyperCard reference library. My email archive is a treasure trove of history about myself that I'd forgotten.

And I rely on all that "offloaded" memory on a regular basis. It's part of my life and a resource I count on. It's "my" memory every bit as much as something I "wrack" my brain to remember. And it is a good bit more reliable.

We are already cyborgs.

For my money, it's a good thing.

Of course not everyone is so sanguine—there is a real fear of, if not losing our humanity to the Borg, then at least becoming less capable people because of it. That's not a new fear. No less than Plato feared external memory (in the form, gasp!, of writing) would lead men to let their memory atrophy and lose the basis for true human wisdom.

Plato wasn't entirely wrong. Anyone with any pretension to learning in that day and age could recite long epic poems that very few in our day would bother to learn. Part of the art of rhetoric was memory practices. But the Greeks and Romans adapted. They decided that perhaps the ability to recite long poems wasn't what really made a man learned. Ironically, the ability to ask the right questions, for which Plato/Socrates was famed, became much more important in determining who was wise.

That same sort of thing has been at work in our own day. Until recently we thought that the ability to parse logic and perform calculations were the indisputable signs of high intelligence. Then computers got so easy to use and so ubiquitous that no one had to be able to do math in order to possess its power. Now being able to do long calculations in the head is merely a quaint skill, not quite on the level of reciting epic poetry, but clearly approaching it.

As terabytes of storage go on sale at Best Buy, as flash memory lets you store gigs of data in your pocket, as laptops that would have recently been classified as supercomputers too powerful to export legally show up at WalMart, as we locally share a 100 meg intranet and a truly capable and ubiquitous wifi net it is interesting to wonder what we'll come to think of as valuably and uniquely human.

People will have levels of memory, calculation, speed, and depth of access to facts that savants in earlier eras could not match. I don't imagine that making those abilities common will make our land as much better a place as the savants might have imagined.

But it should be interesting to see what we do with our new powers. And what we come to value in ourselves instead of those things.

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