Sunday, June 17, 2012

Facebook is Turning Into my Brain

Hit upon something profound (maybe) and a little disturbing (definitely) today while I was farting around on the computer:

Facebook is turning into my brain.

Example: A few days ago, I heard Edvard Greig's "Dance of the Dwarves" on the radio. I dig Greig and, frankly, recall hearing this music used in some kind of cartoon I watched as a kid. So I wanted to remember this piece. So rather than hammering the memory I have of the tune (at least the opening and closing; I have no memories of the bridge) with the names of Greig and the Dance of the Dwarves, I turned first to YouTube and then to Facebook, because I knew going back to YouTube with a search for "that piece I was listening to and dancing to on the radio while doing dishes when my daughter came into the room and was embarrassed by my white man dancing" wasn't going to pull up anything on YouTube. (Well, it came up with this, but it's not quite exactly what I was hoping for.)

Nicholas Carr, of course, would be appalled. Carr is of course the author of the infamous "Is Google Making Us Stupid," in which he said this:
Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “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.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
I'm not as much as a worrywart as Carr is (something he admits, though he never met me personally). I may used Facebook and such to supplement my memory, but it's hardly replacing it. And I'm making new connections to new stuff thanks to the Internet all the time. In fact, if it weren't for this blog entry, I'd never have switched my doing-dishes song from Dance of the Dwarves to "Washing Dishes With My Sweetie."

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