strangedave (strangedave) wrote,
strangedave
strangedave

Boxing Clever

Just a little thinking out loud about thinking.
A common refrain in reporting about the internet, and other related social trends, is that it makes us stupider. Google makes us stupider, multi-tasking makes us stupider, using tiny text formats to communicate makes us stupider (or at least erodes our ability to write, etc).
At the same time we keep having computer demonstrations of things that we used to consider really clever. We used to think chess grandmasters were the heights of human cleverness, but computers are very good at chess now, and being a chess expert has lost a little sparkle. IBM has a computer that plays Jeopardy, which is pretty much a classic competition of human cleverness. Right now, this computer is huge and expensive — but we all expect that this decades huge and expensive is next decades affordable and the decade after thats cheap and ubiquitous (if it even takes that long). Once it is ubiquitous, well, it still might be kind of clever, but it is not a kind of clever we value. Multiplying two large in seconds was once considered astonishing, and highly valuable, now it is a curiousity as a human ability (but the foundation of much modern infrastructure as automation) — human being mimics $2 calculator.
In the medieval era, cleverness was all about the sheer amount of information you could keep in your head, and organising and accessing it. They developed intricate clever techniques for it, such as Memory Palaces. And in that era, a very smart man could theoretically master all academic knowledge. The last man reputed to have mastered all the worlds academic knowledge of his era died in 1680, and was already thought a little outdated then, and the idea is now absurd — but we all have wikipedia at our fingertips, and can find out an awful lot about almost anything fairly quickly, and the idea of cleverness being defined mostly by prodigious feats of memory now seems quaint and somewhat pointless. Great feats of memory are something we associated with autistic savants, not the worlds great thinkers.
It is not that the internet is making us smarter or dumber. But the internet is changing what it means to be clever, as each new set of cognitive skills is 'outsourcable' to machines, the cognitive skills that we value changes, our ideas about what is really clever are updated.
Tags: cognition, history, internets
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