Currently, I am reading a book called Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson. It is a fascinating examination of how humans have used technology over the last few decades. Thompson works hard to make a point that will have librarians around the world cracking their ink-stained knuckles in preparation for a Dewey-fueled dust-up: the internet isn’t making us dumber – it’s making us smarter.
Remember when Gary Kasparov – regarded by many as the greatest chess player of all time – matched wits with IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1996? Kasparov won the first game, then lost the second a year later. It was the first time a computer had ever beaten a reigning world chess champion, and it was all downhill from there, with our computer overlords consistently beating the pants off of humans after that, no matter how much “creativity” and “gumption” and “outside-the-box thinking” we put into the games.
Paranoid observers immediately predicted a Skynet future full of liquid metal robots, flying cars and slave camps where humans are forced to give elocution lessons to Schwarzenegger-like cyborgs (“The raaaaaaain in spaaaain fowls maaaainy – no, no it’s too haaaad! My braaaaain is hurting so bad!”). Instead, industrious humans realized that our imagination isn’t what sets us apart from supercomputers, it’s our highly evolved knack for cheating.
A few years ago, a highly ranked chess player was tearing up a tournament when somebody noticed that he kept excusing himself for various reasons. “Hmm,” thought a particularly astute judge, “that gent sure seems to be going to the bathroom a lot!” It turns out, he was using his smartphone to research moves. That heel won’t go down in history, but his legacy will. Chess players soon discovered that it was virtually impossible to beat a player that had computer access.
Then, as Thompson tells it, somebody had an idea: let’s teach those pretentious computer jerks a lesson. And they did. Human-computer teams now regularly kick the beans out of computer-only opponents (and human-only opponents as well, it should be said). Deep Blue is so depressed that he hasn’t left his house in years. He just sits around in his pajamas all day watching YouTube videos about rescue dogs.
According to Thompson, the fact that we rely on our smartphones to find information for us hasn’t made our intellects weaker, it’s allowed us to purge our minds of relatively useless information (“Does the kung pao chicken come with rice or not?”) and use that horsepower for cooler things like problem-solving. The internet serves as sort of an external hard drive for our brains.
I’m not saying we can stop educating ourselves. Just the opposite: humans need to educate ourselves on how to make the most of this unbelievable opportunity. Is it really our best use of resources to complain about how today’s youth rely too much on spell check? Why shouldn’t they? Is there really a possibility of some technology-free post apocalyptic future where grammarians match wits in semantic bloodsport? (He split his infinitive! Finish him!) I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure this whole internet thing isn’t a fad, so we might as well make the most of it, don’t you think?
Embrace the cyborg future! Rather than complain about “kids and their phones,” perhaps we should all embrace the new internet-connected reality and teach those whippersnappers a thing or two. Are you with me?