The bluffer's guide to understanding

15 June 2008

It took me ages to get round to reading Nick Carr's Atlantic piece on the stupefying effects of Internet usage. I was too busy looking at lolcats, surfing the news and skimming through RSS feeds. And I liked it. That's probably where the problem lies.

In The Big Switch and other recent writing, Carr worries about the relentless push toward the Singularity - a time when humans and computers become inseparable because the machines will keep us alive and help us think. The Atlantic piece signs off: "as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence".

I think Carr worries too much about the ability of computer science to deliver on Larry Page's 2004 promise in a Newsweek interview that he cites: "Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off."

The idea of the machine that learns for us was echoed recently by a UK educationalist who thought we would be learning in our sleep courtesy of hypno-programs. It's a popular theme in sci-fi but really only makes sense if you confuse information with knowledge.

A lot of people seem confused about it, especially those in the 'knowledge management' field. You can no more manage knowledge with computer databases than you can manage lions by putting up signs saying "please don't eat the antelopes". You can, however, corral information, which is what the average knowledge management system really does. And, as it turns out, many of them function as glorified search engines. Some places have even replaced the traditional knowledge-management system with a search engine that is not Google's but one that works pretty much the same way.

To turn information into knowledge you have to apply understanding. There are no shortcuts. However, the brain does make it easier on us by providing subtle rewards for learning stuff, both good and bad. The amygdala is a tiny part of the brain that takes part in a lot of neural processing. It's easy to overplay the role of the amygdala but recent research suggests that the amygdala is there to help us understand, and making us feel good about it. However, the amygdala tends to favour learning in an social or emotional context.

And this is probably where the problem with Google and the Internet lies. Our minds are inherently distractable. This is a good thing. It probably helped stop us getting eaten by lions. Sorry antelopes. And I'm willing to bet that the process is helped if we learn something by being distracted, even if it is just a lolcats punchline. You can then double up on the mental reward by getting social points from emailing it or blogging it.

If the brain rewards us for the kinds of learning distractions that the Internet provides, then it is not hard to see why putting a lot of effort into reading a longer tract would seem harder. Fear may also play a role in this, another response mediated by the amygdala. It's interesting that productivity schemes such as Getting Things Done tend to revolve around writing things down in diaries and to-do lists to effectively clear them from your head, so you stop worrying about them until it's time to get on with them.

I reckon some of the effects are temporary. Take away the external stimuli and reading a book is easy. People seem to happily digest books on flights – probably more so on medium-distance journeys where there is no multichannel TV and games system.

However, I also believe that there is a second influence that comes into play: the ability to fake it. This is potentially the permanent legacy of the searchable Internet and one that is far harder to deal with. This is where hooking your head up to Page's ultimate addon is both a boon and a dangerous idea.

One thing that the search engine excels at is DIY tech support. Got a problem with the computer? Google the error message and see what comes up. Nine times out of ten the answer is staring from the first page of results.

Where it becomes insidious is where you start to believe that manuals or text books are for suckers and that the answer is only one search term away. It dawned on me as I was looking to solve a Unix-related problem that you can waste an awful lot of time trawling round the Intarwebs looking for a solution when I could have simply learned a bit more about how the system actually works and then just use the logs to nail the issue.

I guess I could learn about the workings of the system by piecing together the errors, but it's often a whole lot quicker just to put some donkey-work into learning. This kind of knowledge fakery is the thing that really worries educationalists. The systems we have to test knowledge tend to assume that students have gone through the understanding phase. But the types of exams and tests that worked pre-Internet are breaking down because it is hard to distinguish between someone who has genuine understanding and who has just managed to fake it by picking up on the key points and buzzwords around a topic.


Excellent piece! Totally agree

But the types of exams and tests that worked pre-Internet are breaking down because it is hard to distinguish between someone who has genuine understanding and who has just managed to fake it by picking up on the key points and buzzwords around a topic.

It does not take much searching to discover managers, politicians and academics who have never done anything but pick up the key points and buzzwords -- it seems that it is simply trickling downward.