This week’s post, entitled “Do the Evolution, Baby”, was originally written in June 2008:

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.
But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance — as we all become “pancake people” — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.
Will this produce a new kind of enlightenment or “super-consciousness”? Sometimes I am seduced by those proclaiming so — and sometimes I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.
– Richard Foreman

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, Nicholas Carr posed the following provocative question: is Google making us stupid? [Ed. note: the article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue.] To roughly paraphrase the gist of Carr’s article, the ever-increasing use of and reliance upon the Internet as one’s primary source of information has the capacity to change the way we think. Carr elegantly puts it thus:
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. 
I understand Carr’s scepticism (ambivalence? regret?). It is akin to the feeling I have when I consider the possibility that books might one day be obsolete, and realize that the deep sentimental attachment that feeds my regret is an anachronism in this day and age. I suppose this is a natural phenomenon of living in an era of radical technological progress. The way we live, think, interact with one another can change so quickly nowadays that we can easily fall out of step if we stop, even for a moment, to reflect on what might be lost through our evolution. I’m not sure that humanity ever before faced such a fast-paced barrage of change – or embraced it quite as unquestioningly.

A century ago, people might reasonably expect to encounter no more than one significant technological advancement, and deal with its social and cultural consequences, in their lifetime. Now, the pace of technology is such that people can speak meaningfully about “generation gaps” – generations being sometimes less than a decade apart. I don’t think most of us have fully grasped the uniqueness of our present position. And, by many accounts, we are for now merely on the cusp of the actual technological ‘boom’.

For these reasons, I can’t speak unequivocally about my own feelings or expectations in the face of the coming change. I have no precedent by which to be guided, and the future – whatever it may be – is guaranteed to be so radically different from the here-and-now that it bears no scrutiny. All I can say is that I wish people were a little more conscious of the subtle changes being wrought in every aspect of their daily lives, and perhaps a little more circumspect in each step they take towards the brave new world.

We create technology, and technology changes us, influencing everything including the way and what we create. Where is the beginning and where is the end, and where does the balance of control rest in this equation? Trying to unravel this particular conundrum is a little like trying to answer that eternal question – which came first, the chicken or the egg? Are we still, at this point, functioning within some natural framework – of evolution, God’s design, what have you – or are we now beyond any such ‘simplistic’ conceptions? If progress is good, have we thought about what it is exactly that we are progressing to? Who is, and should be, the “we” in question? Who is ultimately making the decision, and what’s being done to ensure that it’s an informed one? Of course, I’m over-simplifying things to the point of absurdity for the sake of my argument. It’s silly to think that humanity might strike up something like an ad hoc committee to decide its own fate. Even if it were logically – and logistically – possible, it would probably immediately degenerate into farce; its only fruit most likely nothing more than a useless report, 5 years and a billion dollars too late.

Yet, it strikes me that the goal or destination of our march of progress is an important question. Shouldn’t we have some idea, some general sense of direction in such matters? Shouldn’t we at least give some thought to the plausible outcomes, and arrive at something more solid than a mere assumption of their suitability? Merely plunging ahead, which seems to be our current modus operandi, seems fraught with possibilities for regret later on. While it isn’t exactly fashionable to question the Google that ‘feeds’ us, perhaps it might be wise.

August 10, 2012: I originally wrote this post a year or two after I signed up for a Facebook account. I had been one of the first people in my circle of acquaintances to do so, and I remember vividly how novel of an experience it seemed to be then, and even a year later. Four years after that post, I am hard-pressed to remember a version of my social life that didn’t revolve around Facebook. I can count on one hand the number of friends with whom I don’t interact – in many cases primarily or even exclusively – through Facebook. In fact, it would not be a hyperbole to state that the majority of my social interactions, outside of immediate family and work, occur through or are facilitated by Facebook. I also now have a Twitter account, a LinkedIn profile, and have been pressed on more than one occasion to sign up for Pinterest. And, even so, I remain one of the “old school” bunch. I prefer to read my books in paper form, and I don’t have an apps-loaded iPhone to navigate everything from shopping to public transit. Slowly but surely, the social hub of the entire plugged-in world is moving online. It might be taking old timers like me a little longer to fully assimilate, but to my son’s generation, it looks like this will be the only known mode of existence. Perhaps that is why I always feel a little bit of joy whenever I see my son turn his attention away from his determined pursuit of the laptop to a book. Of course, he can’t read yet. But I hope that the physical experience stays with him, acting as a counterweight to all the intangible technology that surrounds him.

One of the questions that jumped out at me on re-reading the post was this: “…what it is exactly that we are progressing to?” Having read bits and pieces on the philosophy of transhumanism, that question continues to fascinate and frighten me; most of us have given so little thought to our species’ future (separate and apart from that of the planet), even though it is likely to be such an unrecognizable one. Will humanity cease to exist at some point – not because of some global catastrophe, but because we will cease to be human? A blurring of the line between human and artificial intelligence has long captivated popular imagination, while at the same time proving repellant to our sense of (human) identity. But is that identity going to slowly become as much of an anachronism as a geographically-fixed sense of community?

2 Comments on Friday Flashback: Google brain

  1. Exceptionally stimulating piece of writing, my dear.

    The western culture has been, since the beginning of time, a society that promotes eradicating thought process in favor of prepackaged information accumulation. (Other cultures do not differ in that regard.)
    Internet, TV, or any other form of the information managing technology is just a tool in the world that was already inclined not to encourage any revolutionary thinking.
    In the middle ages, we had Church as the ultimate information authority. Whatever the men of the cloth or the good Book said was the ultimate truth. Rebelling theorists such as Galileo Galilei or Giordano Bruno were dealt with accordingly.
    Fast forward 350 years and you have Joseph Goebbles (and the Third Reich) mastering manipulation via information.
    Information control = masses control = future control.
    It is truly as simple as that.
    Modern society is no different than the Middle Ages or the Third Reich. Granted the goals and methodologies have changed, but we control masses in a rather similar manner.
    [Ask an average American, or even many Canadians – Why are your/our troops in Afghanistan/Iraq/Serbia/soon Iran(?) and they will tell you “to protect our way of life”. When you hear it, it sounds like a hypnotic mantra, like some crazy chanting from an Indiana Jones movie “protect our way of life”, “protect our way of life”, “protect our way of life”…
    I found one person, one person only, who attempted to explain to me what (his idea) “our way of life was”, but he was a bigot so I don’t even count that conversation as pertinent.
    When, once quite frustrated, I declared, in a fairly theatrical style so characteristic to me: “Don’t confuse dying for Oil with fighting for freedom!”, I was told that I should be ashamed of myself for not supporting our troops???!!! Why? Because the CNN/FOX/or any other North American media has told people that it is OK for our troops to go to some God-forsaken country and democratize them (and while they are mesmerized with the new amusement, we’ll pump out their oil, steal their diamonds, or invite their intelligence to move in and make profit for us).]
    Let’s, if only for a minute, forget about the manipulation for which only human kind, never technology, can be blamed – the tools that we have created are incredibly fascinating.
    Human brain resembles the operational structure of your average computer. We have processor and database. More information that we load into our database, more we slow down our processor. However, more we maintain (exercise) the processor, more we can expect from it. Granted, the intellectual outcomes are more affluent, as more information is used in their creation; but does that information, necessarily, need to be housed in our own brain if it’s already available at our fingertips?
    I’d agree with you that the information on the internet is mostly tainted by someone’s personal view or perception, but so is the information found in the books, learned in schools (winners write history, no) or attested within perimeters of any given civilization (For instance: fashion, moral or even right&wrong don’t mean the same to us as they do to a society ruled by Sharia law). Nevertheless, after obtaining information, it’s up to the individual’s motivation and/or intellectual abilities to decontaminate the content and use the essence of it in its purest possible form. Once we have the clean information particles, the only way to put them together and form an opinion is – aha – to glue them with the solution made of our own values, background and experiences which is essentially to taint them with – us (but again, that is what will brand that information as our own).
    The question I ask is: Do we bother to go that last step? Do we think it through, analyze it, or even challenge it? Or, do we just take it as it is with kinda/sorta “oh, whatever…close enough” attitude and if we do, why do we do it?
    Is it the technological progress that’s slowing down our natural human curiosity and inquisitiveness?
    The technological progress is happening at much faster pace than our evolution, but we seem to enjoy and welcome it. Discovery used to mean climbing the uncharted territories equipped only by a candle and an imprecise map. Discovery today means sitting in a cushioned armchair with the 3D glasses on. I don’t think that someone in particular makes decisions as to how we progress and where our progress is heading. The market asks for the new/the more/the different and creators create the new/the more/the different. Progress has become a business as lame as any other. Tricky concept, at the least.
    I ‘m going to dare to say that Google (or any such technology) does not make us stupid. It, actually, makes it easier for us to remain “stupid by choice” – something that makes life easier, for so many, since the beginning of time.
    Google can, also, make it much easier for us to exercise “our processors” by expanding our thinking repertoire, exploring other viewpoints and challenging our own, but I have a cynical feeling that no many bother with it now that the new Bachelorette season is just around the corner :/.

  2. If humankind is to have a future, it is in space. I really wish we were getting to the moon and beyond. It’d massively benefit the economy, too.