I just saw this series of ads from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and immediately thought about the question of technology making us smarter (or dumber). This series of ads beautifully depicts the fact that ignorance travels with us into the digital world and that no tool, technological or otherwise, is advanced enough at this point to do anything more than reflect our reality.
This weekend, I read a fascinating article about Clive Thompson’s book Smarter than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. In the book, Thompson expands upon Bush’s memex and Engelbart’s theory of augmentation, arguing that “outsourcing” some of our memories enables “extraordinary dot collecting…by access to knowledge beyond what our heads can hold–because, as Amanda Palmer poignantly put it, ‘we can only connect the dots we collect,’ and the outsourcing of memory has exponentially enlarged our dot collections.”
Thompson’s analysis fits in well with our discussions: he traces resistance to technology throughout history, including Socrates’ objection to writing and its effects on memory and the creation and development of libraries as places to store and organize knowledge. He notes a difference now, however:
The history of factual memory has been fairly predictable up until now. With each innovation, we’ve outsourced more information, then worked to make searching more efficient. Yet somehow, the Internet age feels different. Quickly pulling up [the answer to a specific esoteric question] on Google seems different from looking up a bit of trivia in an encyclopedia. It’s less like consulting a book than like asking someone a question, consulting a supersmart friend who lurks within our phones.
After reading Engelbart’s framework, I started wondering whether augmentation through new media/technology actually negates the need for people to pursue greater natural intelligence. A little Googling led me to a 2011 article in Scientific American, which claims that our brains have all but reached their evolutionary potential. What was particularly interesting was the ways that the author, Douglas Fox, determined we may continue to develop intellectually–if not biologically:
The human mind, however, may have better ways of expanding without the need for further biological evolution. After all, honeybees and other social insects do it: acting in concert with their hive sisters, they form a collective entity that is smarter than the sum of its parts. Through social interaction we, too, have learned to pool our intelligence with others.
And then there is technology. For millennia written language has enabled us to store information outside our body, beyond the capacity of our brain to memorize. One could argue that the Internet is the ultimate consequence of this trend toward outward expansion of intelligence beyond our body. In a sense, it could be true, as some say, that the Internet makes you stupid: collective human intelligence—culture and computers—may have reduced the impetus for evolving greater individual smarts.
This focus on “collective human intelligence” is particularly interesting in light of Engelbart’s focus on the individual.
I’m intrigued by the influence of cybernetics on art and the way that new media and interactivity have been translated by artists. As a poet, I embrace the post-structuralist concepts described in our text: when I send a poem into the world, it is no longer mine. My intentions and meanings no longer apply. The reader will interpret my work through the lens of his/her experiences and identities, and I must accept this interaction or write only for myself.
When I think about it, isn’t art the ultimate metaphor for new media? We take an idea, shaped by what we know, believe, and observe, and create something new but connected to what came before it. New media provides opportunities to make meaning by combining, connecting, and creating. What’s more, it’s individualized: there is no central truth. Voila! Sounds like art to me.
I’m particularly drawn to this representation by Nam June Paik (referenced in our text), which illustrates media as an instrument.
This image complements John Cage’s manipulation of a traditional instrument—the piano—by putting everyday tools beneath the strings.