June 20, 2012

Closer to the Clouds

Are we all lazy creatures? Some would say we always look for shortcuts to obtain what we want --even in the most disciplined version of ourselves. The path of least resistance defines our every move. The behavior goes deeper than what we see in our penchant to become couch potatoes. The brain also is always looking for ways to do the same tasks in the most efficient (effortless) way possible. Amblyopia is an example of the brain turning off the visual signal in one eye, choosing to overdevelop the other to compensate the loss of vision in the first one. There have been reported cases of people losing hearing in one ear without any apparent reason while at the same time overdeveloping the other ear. When the brain realizes that it can accomplish the same task with less resources, it appears it decides to shut down redundancies.

But what happens when a redundancy in the brain is created by an external agent? Some discovery -fire-, some tool -utensils-, some technology created for the convenience of humans, and a brain skill is rendered redundant, shut down and put to rest. Examples: the written word lightened the brain's memory burden. Calculators made the need of mentally calculating arithmetic operations almost disappear. Kids nowadays lack handwriting skills thanks to texting. Wikipedia killed the need to peruse volumes upon volumes for hours to find what we wanted. There has been a marked concern about the way Google creates brain skill redundancies. The immediacy of information reach, coupled with the model of internet monetization (where a plethora of ads compete in the screen for the reader's attention to get the much-coveted "click") has hindered the ability of the brain to achieve profound, prolonged levels concentration. ADD is fomented by the way we process information in our daily lives, some argue. 

Is the waning of a brain skill caused by an app, gadget, or any other form of mental crutch creating a new generation of good-for-nothing neophytes doomed to failure by its mental laziness? If the storage and processing of information in our brains can be outsourced to the clouds, where is the need to really learn anything? Are Universities becoming eventually extinct? Could we get to a point where all we would need is a handheld device connected to the clouds, and someone to ask Google a question and follow/implement the clouds’ indications to solve any problem? Does the internet foment irreversible mental atrophy? 

The answer is no. The brain is not getting dumber by the mental redundancies created by technology. Improvements in living standards would have stagnated decades ago had that been the case. If anything, brain skill redundancies created by technology free up human capacity to focus on more specific discoveries. Think of it in terms of comparative advantage theory: When a nation (person) is able to produce something (solve a problem) at a lower opportunity cost (foregoing less of other product), that nation (person) should specialize and import (outsource from others) that what it (he/she) is not competitive at. 

And this happens because knowledge is a non-rivalrous public good. Because it has no opportunity cost (nothing is sacrificed to use it) and because it shows no diminishing returns the way capital goods do (every additional unit of labor combined with the technology in question yields the same incremental output). More to the point: thanks to the internet, knowledge is becoming increasingly non-excludable (to a point where it affects property rights). This is a powerful, paradigm-shifting phenomenon. The internet agglutinates every single discovery ever achieved by mankind throughout history, and it is available in fractions of a second. For free. Think about what that means. Of course this molds brain skills. It creates Otaku people. Instantaneous (or "fake”, as some bemoan) experts. Socrates in his time disdained the written word for creating people who would falsely appear as erudite, or "filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom". He would definitely be turning over in his grave now.

With all the respect that deserves who is arguably the biggest philosopher humankind has ever seen, Socrates was wrong to think that way. Change should not be feared. The written word served as a revolutionary way to spread knowledge. The printing press then catapulted it. Every iteration of knowledge dispersion technology has led to human progress. The internet is just the latest one. Any incremental improvement/discovery in human knowledge is added to the internet and immediately shared with the rest of the world. Ready to be used by someone else and be taken to higher levels. To the clouds. Literally (well, kind of).