Friday, March 04, 2011

The question is the thing

  • Jim Holt reviews Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember in The London Review of Books.
To ponder:
Moreover, as the cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus has pointed out, it’s possible to have the benefits of contextual memory without the costs. ‘The proof is Google,’ Marcus writes. ‘Search engines start with an underlying substrate of postcode memory (the well-mapped information they can tap into) and build contextual memory on top. The postcode foundation guarantees reliability, while the context on top hints at which memories are most likely needed at a given moment.’ It’s a pity, Marcus adds, that evolution didn’t start with a memory system more like the computer’s.

Considering these advantages, why not outsource as much of our memory as possible to Google? Carr responds with a bit of rhetorical bluster. ‘The web’s connections are not our connections,’ he writes. ‘When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.’ Then he quotes William James, who in 1892 in a lecture on memory declared: ‘The connecting is the thinking.’ And James was onto something: the role of memory in thinking, and in creativity. What do we really know about creativity? Very little. We know that creative genius is not the same thing as intelligence. In fact, beyond a certain minimum IQ threshold – about one standard deviation above average, or an IQ of 115 – there is no correlation at all between intelligence and creativity. We know that creativity is empirically correlated with mood-swing disorders. A couple of decades ago, Harvard researchers found that people showing ‘exceptional creativity’ – which they put at fewer than 1 per cent of the population – were more likely to suffer from manic-depression or to be near relatives of manic-depressives. As for the psychological mechanisms behind creative genius, those remain pretty much a mystery. About the only point generally agreed on is that, as Pinker put it, ‘Geniuses are wonks.’ They work hard; they immerse themselves in their genre.
My whole thing? The "exponential" growth of knowledge accessible by the Internet only expands our possibilities. Science and technology are not in perpetual motion; they move forward only when we start asking different questions.

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