In doing some background research for a book review I wanted to dig up an article I remember from years ago. Not remembering exactly where I found it I turned to Google, the research assistant all of humanity turns to in times like this. I entered the search terms: Google Making Us Stupid and in a nano second got the answer I was looking for, the 2008 Atlantic article by Nicholas Carr titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the Internet is doing to our brains” (also see short review here).
Will share more on the relevance of that article in my coming review of “Re-Engineering Humanity” by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger. In many ways their work is a decade later update of Carr’s thought provoking essay.
But with this post wanted to encourage you to review the 10 year old Carr article. There are many reasons to do so. One is his message that most of us are reading less, at least, reading fewer full length, book level thoughts. But there is also the fact that our skills in research and analysis (and even spelling!) are in atrophy. His work was done well before the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning that is now making life easier in every little task. Great foundational reading.
Another thing I loved about Carr’s article is his beginning and ending with a scene from science fiction. He opens with:
“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “ brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”
I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
He ends with:
I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machine like that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.
There are many challenges facing humanity today. Many of them come from the techno-social engineering that technologists like us champion and field and use. We can play a great part in making sure our future is one where tech contributes greatly to humanity vice threatens it. One of the great tools we have to make sure we don’t do that is our imagination and ability to visualize a greater world. We can also visualize dystopian worlds and use those to build plans on what to avoid in our future.
See, SciFi is more than just fun. Watch the great science fiction movies and read the great science fiction books to expand your mind and fuel your ability to design the future.
We are gathering all CTOvision writing on Science Fiction at our new SciFi portal. Find it at the CTOvision Science Fiction Site. And as always we continue to track the realities of IT, focusing on the megatrends driving us all forward.
We would love your feedback on all of this. Contact us here with your thoughts.