Joshua Foer [ Attention Economy ] Given that this is such an intimate setting I think I would like to maybe chat briefly and then have a kind of conversation with you guys about a theme, a subject, that is almost like this thread that goes through my book, Moonwalking With Einstein which is the relationship between knowledge and wisdom, between memory and intelligence. I think it’s a pertinent subject to talk about at this moment in time here at Google.
In Steven Levy’s book In the Plex about the history and culture of Google he has your CEO, Larry Page, on the record saying that he looks forward to the day when ultimately his products, Google products, will be channeled straight into your brain , where you will merely think of a question and the answer will come straight to you. In fact someday maybe you’ll have a Google implant that will connect you directly to Google services. Sergey Brin has said that ultimately Google is about making, augmenting your brain with sort of all of the world’s knowledge. And that my sound kinda like science fiction, but I’m enough of a technological determinist and I guess have enough faith in Google to believe that that is something that may ultimately come about.
If you look around at sort of what’s going on in the world there are enough indicators that suggest that this is a future that’s not that impossible. Already you know cochlear implants have been installed in something like over 200,000 human brains; take sound waves, turns them into electrical impulses, channels them into you; the brain stem allows deaf people to hear. And you’ve got a number of sort of research firms all over the world, research groups I should say, working on developing sort of primitive neuroprosthetics.
I did a story for Esquire a few years back about a guy called Erik Ramsey who when he was 16 years old was in this absolutely tragic car accident that left him locked in, totally took away his ability to control any part of his body beyond his eyes. But cognitively he was totally there and working with a scientist, a neuroscientist in Georgia, he had a set of electrodes implanted into the part of the pre-motor cortex that controls sort of movement of the mouth, the tongue, the lips. The notion is that at some point they’re training him to control the prosthetic voice using his thoughts.
That’s sort of like one way communication, I think the ultimate vision is some sort of two way communication where it’s not just data coming but data coming into the brain. I don’t know if it’s going to be Google who does this or if it’s going to happen in my lifetime, but if you look at sort of the broad trajectory of where technology is going in terms of creating an ever more seamless connection, interface, between the minds that are embodied in our brains and the memories that are embodied in our technology, in our devices like our Smart Phones, I think it’s fair to say that Google has got a nice head start.
There was some reporting in The New York Times earlier this year by Nick Bilton who suggested that [Google is] working on a heads up display that he says is going to be out by Christmas. The notion is that we’ll be walking around with all this information projected straight on to our retinas, which is a much less clumsy and clunky way of tapping into the collective knowledge of mankind than using my thumbs or even talking to my phone.
I think this is poised to be like the big story of my lifetime, of the next several decades is how life is going to change as we really merge in a more seamless way our internal and our external minds.
This is actually an old story; we’ve been figuring out better and better ways to externalize our memories and to recall them, activate them with better and better technologies basically since the first caveman splashed paint on the wall of a cave. Once upon a time anything that was going to be passed on had to be remembered, there was nothing to do with a thought except remember it. There was no alphabet to transcribe thoughts in, no paper to put them down upon, and anything that was gonna be conveyed first has to be memorized.
And then there was of course this massive technological shift, the invention of writing, and you had people who were objecting to that. 2500 years ago Socrates was at the very least ambivalent and maybe even up in arms about this new invention called writing and he said, “Writing is going to make people dumb. People are going to start taking ideas out of their minds, putting them down on papyrus and thinking that they are still smart when in fact they’re just going to be like empty vessels.”
Information memory stored on a external source can’t inspire you, can’t challenge you, they’re static. Real knowledge has to be deeply embedded in your consciousness.
Socrates thought the culture was headed down this terrible, treacherous path that was going to end no place good. Fortunately somebody had the good sense to write down Socrates’ disdain for the written word otherwise we wouldn’t remember it; thank you very much Plato. I think we would all agree that he was overstating the case, we’ve had writing for a couple of millennia, we’re more inclined to see its benefits than its pitfalls.
There’s also something we can recognize in what Socrates was concerned about, some nugget of wisdom that is especially pertinent today. It has to do with the operating metaphor in how we think about memory, how we talk about memory colloquially. It’s the operating metaphor that’s embedded in the idea of these Google goggles and in so much else that we’re doing with technology right now, which is this notion that our memories are like a bank; we deposit information into this bank when we encode it and we pull it back out at some later date. And that implies a kind of equivalence between an internal memory and an external memory.
Actually if I’ve got a bank up here and a bank here, the bank that’s hardware is a whole lot less likely to make mistakes, it’s a whole lot more durable, it is in almost every way superior to the wetware that I’ve got up here.
I think you find, I found this idea, this metaphor the memory as a bank is really sort of seeped into a lot of aspects of our life. Even in school you find now kids saying, “Well why should I learn that piece of information I can always just Google it?” And you can find teachers who seem to be agreeing with them, “Yeah why should we teach kids facts, why should we teach kids content, we want to make kids into creative thinkers and to innovative thinkers, into people who can process the world and so why should we waste our time on content, it’s just gonna get forgotten about anyways?”
What we’re seeing is a kind of evolution in our notion of what it means to be erudite.
For Socrates, erudition meant having all of these internally stored memories that were always there at the forefront of his mind. All the way through the late Middle Ages you had people thinking about writing in very different terms than we do today. People wrote things down not as we do today, to offload them so we don’t have to remember things, people wrote things down to aid their memories, writing was thought of as an aide memoir.
There’s a wonderful quote by Petrarch, he says, “I ate in the morning what I digested in the afternoon. What I swallowed as a boy I’ve ruminated upon as an old man. These writings were implanted not just in my memory but in my marrow.” There was this notion that to really fully engage with information deeply it had to be integrated into your soul.
It’s a very different sort of notion of reading than we have today.
After Gutenberg, after books become mass produced commodities, erudition evolves from having all this stuff stored internally to knowing how and where to find information in this labyrinthine world of external memories, there are now books everywhere. I’d argue that there is a new stage in this evolution of erudition which is that we no longer have to even know how and where to find stuff we just need to know the right set of search terms and then Google can take care of the rest.
What is problematic about this metaphor of memory as a bank is that it’s not really how our memories work.
Our memories are not sequestered in some vault in our brain — they’re actually always there. They are always shaping how we perceive the world, how we make decisions in the world, how we move through the world, our judgment, and there’s a continuous feedback process between our perception and our memory. Our memories are actually much less like a bank and much more like a lens; a lens that is constantly filtering the world for us and helping us to make sense of it.
This is something that we all intuitively get. If I was to sit down next to a Google engineer and look at a website we would see two very different things; we actually would look at the world differently because of the memories that we’ve got floating around in our skulls. The Google engineer would see all sorts of things that just don’t have meaning to me, that aren’t relevant to me, that I don’t even understand. And likewise if we took a walk in a park, because I studied evolutionary biology in college and know a little bit about the life history of trees, there are things that I pay attention to, things that direct my attention that might not otherwise catch another person’s.
My experience of that walk in the park is going to be qualitatively different from somebody else’s.
That’s the notion behind what Petrarch was saying. Our memories make us who we are, they’re at the root of not just our self identity but our values, our character, our judgments, our sense of appreciation of the world. And it’s not just about information.
Not long ago I was in Shanghai doing an assignment for National Geographic. I went through high school not having received even the smallest bit of education about Chinese history. I didn’t know that Kublai Khan was a real person, which in retrospect is kind of amazing. I tried to make the best of this three days that I had in Shanghai and go to all the museums and interpret the culture as best I could and make sense of the history.
What I found was that not just didn’t I know this stuff, I didn’t even have the ability to learn it. I didn’t have the basic facts to fasten other facts to.
What that suggests is the extent to which our memories, my experience, was impoverished. And it kinda sucked. It made me regret the fact that I didn’t know anything about Chinese history.
Part of what makes me nervous about this direction that technology, our culture, seems to be going in is that in the process of privileging this kind of memory that we are devaluing the other kind of memory, the kind of memory that actually really matters to living a rich life, to living a good life.
There was a study that I’m sure many of you are aware of in the Journal of Science last year that suggested that when people know their piece of information is stored on the Internet in a computer that they invest less of themselves in remembering it and tend to have a worse memory for that information just because they know that it exists online. It’s not that Google’s making us dumb, it’s that Google is making us lazy, that’s what that study really suggested.
When we, when I think about this vision of the future that Larry Page is pre-visioning of a world in which we are constantly plugged in and constantly have the entire collective knowledge of humanity, the greater human consciousness all sort of immediately accessible, always there, always on, I think there are going to be ways in which it’s going to be truly wonderful, truly glorious having access to all of the world’s information is incredible.
But the thing that I hope we will keep in mind is that infinite knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom.
I hope Google will keep this in mind as it develops all of this technology because over the next couple of decades you guys are going to have a power to shape our culture and shape how humans live at a very intimate level in a way that I don’t know that any institution outside of organized religion has ever had before.
My hope is that what will guide you is a kind of humanism.
I think this trajectory may be inevitable but Google and maybe a few of your competitors have the power to guide us in some ways and help shape the culture that we’re creating together.
How do we make life easier, more efficient, get that extra marginal utility, doesn’t necessarily equate to the good life.
If that’s what’s driving us, or much worse, the bottom line in maximizing shareholder profits, I hope that what will guide Google is a sense of humanism, of people asking really big questions, really old questions about what the good life really means and what are the values that we want to perpetuate in ourselves and in humanity at large.
If you don’t ask those questions, if Google’s not asking those questions, if Apple’s not asking those questions, if Facebook’s not asking those questions, I fear we are going to wake up in 25 years wearing our Google goggles and having our thoughts Tweeted straight into the ether and we’re gonna be like that proverbial lobster that doesn’t even realize that it’s boiling itself to death.
We are going to wake up and we are going say, “Is this really good? I know my life is more efficient, more productive. I’m more connected, my Internet connection is faster, but am I really living a good life and are my basic human needs in the biggest possible sense being met?” Is this really the future that we wanted?
Maybe we should have a conversation about that. I’m curious to hear what you guys think since you all are shaping that future.
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