Stephen Baker

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What to keep in our heads?

March 1, 2010General

Here's what I posted last week on Smart Data Collective.

I'll start with what sounds like a silly question: Which brain do you do most of your thinking with, the spongy one in your head or the electronic wonder at your fingertips? Which one stores more of your memories, and stitches together the webs of your friendships?

Even a decade ago, the answer would have been obvious. We depended on the prodigious thinking machine we carry between our ears, the most sophisticated work of circuitry known in the universe. But in recent years we've been turning to the giant and fast-expanding external brain we all share. The networked world, its vast air-conditioned data centers linked by neurons of fiber-optic cables, answers our questions, corrects our spelling and details not only our location, but the annual rainfall and average annual income there, and the name, weight and mating habits of the species most likely to climb the back fence and ravage the tomato plants. Unlike our own faulty equipment, this brain forgets nothing.    

While our brains have stayed more or less the same for 40,000 years, treading evolutionary water from the Cro-Magnon cave painters to Quentin Tarantino, our external brain is leaping ahead. In the last year or two of the 20th century it learned how to search. It was as if it had sprouted a lobe for memory. Then with the growth of social networks it took up the study of friendships. As I write, computer scientists are teaching it how to read, and how to identify human faces in crowds. Every year, this global brain doubles in transistors. It's growing stronger. And as it does, it piles up not just mountains of data, but entire ranges of them. This brain, nourished by everything we feed the networks, every chat, every click, every edit in Wikipedia, is getting smarter. As it does, we use it more and more, summoning it with new devices, keeping this fabulous resource on call every waking hour. And why not? At this point, forgoing our common brain would be like volunteering for a lobotomy. You'd have to be an idiot.

But each of us has to come up with a strategy for our own heads. As the external brain learns and expands and comes up with new ways to reach and service us, what do we need to store in our biological brains? What skills do we need to set us apart, to make us happy, to thrive? In short, what do we need to know?

In a sense, many of us living through this information revolution share something with  legions of medieval monks who were ambushed by the last big one. They spent years of their lives memorizing sacred texts that would soon be spilling off new-fangled printing presses. Instead of storing all that data in their heads, the monks could have saved lots of time, and presumably freed up gobs of capacity, by archiving those texts on shelves. (We won't stop here to discuss whether the monks were eager for "free time," a concept dangerously close to Sloth, the fourth of the Seven Deadly sins.) In the same way, much of the knowledge  we have stuffed into our heads over the years is rendered superfluous by new machinery. 

As we grapple with these two brains, far more is at stake for each of us than acing resource management for thoughts, calculations, dreams and memories. Beyond efficiency, it's a matter of defending and defining what it means to be human. There's a battle raging between these two brains, and I have some sobering news. Our flesh and blood standard, the seat of our being, is in retreat.

Here, I should clear up one point. At times I may describe the external brain as a single entity, with its own strategy and interests. It's not. It's an ecosystem in which we all participate. It includes everything that reaches through networks for our attention, whether it's a text message from a supervisor at work or a blinking banner ad on Yahoo! All of these elements are vying for a moment or two of our time. That's their nourishment. Imagine what would happen if all of us spent a few months off the electrical grid, playing cards or paging through old books and magazines. The network would be starved for information. Companies would lose track of workers and operations. Twitter would wither, Wikipedia would grow stale. Facebook would stand still in time. Google would go broke. Our electronic brain, bereft of human input, would be little more than a big calculator in the sky.

In a Darwinian sense, the survival of each player in the network hinges on its ability to tap our attention. Just like geraniums, which grow bright red to attract bumblebees, each element develops its own appeal. Some offer answers, others gossip or sexy photos. Some of the most effective, including e-mail and social networks, enlist us to engage our friends. The services they provide can be useful, fun or even necessary. But if you look at it from the point of view of the beleaguered brain, the networked world places an enormous and distracting bazaar right before our eyes. It leads us down dozens of paths. If successful, it can turn a simple e-mail check or Web search into a multi-hour voyage into chaos. In the worst of cases, we get confused and distracted--by some measures, perhaps, dumber--and it keeps growing smarter. I look at it as a giant and thriving parasite.    

What happens to our own brains during this process? Far more than a work shop or a reference book, our brain, after all, is the headquarters for love, faith, joy, friendship, everything we experience in life. How can we assert our mastery over the electronic brain, this globe-spanning marvel, without surrendering to it? In a sense, this is much the same challenge we face when we eat. Through most of our time on earth, humans, like other animals, have had to scrounge for nutrition. Cave men didn't count calories. But with today's abundance in wealthy societies, our omnivorous instincts lead to obesity. Information, too, has long been scarce. But this is true no more. We can overload. We can binge on junk. This feeds the electronic brain and risks starving our own. We must manage more than ever what we put into our heads.

A couple of months ago, I drafted a proposal to write a book about this issue. (It included several of these paragraphs.) The trouble, I soon realized, was that while I could describe the challenge, I was short on answers. What should we keep in our heads? Since I had only vague ideas, I've written this to kick start a conversation. Maybe together we can figure it out.

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