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Pathfinders: Is technology making us stupid?

Do you ever wonder whether the smarter technology becomes, the dumber and lazier we become?

 At one level, of course, this can’t be true. Literacy rates in almost all countries are in the high nineties, and the information revolution can scarcely be said to have rendered people more ignorant than they were hundreds of years ago. Advanced capitalism needs workers skilled in the ‘knowledge economy’, and can scarcely afford for its school indoctrination centres to turn out workers who aren’t up to the job.

 But still, when you try to have a conversation in a pub with a group of people who are simultaneously writing phone texts, checking their email, Facebook, Twitter accounts and RSS feeds, and looking over your shoulder at the cricket scores on the giant TV screen, while humming along to the rock tune on the in-house speakers, you might be forgiven for thinking that less is sometimes more. It seems as if people don’t discuss, think, concentrate, criticise, evaluate. All they’re doing is time-slicing in a perpetual multi-tasking environment. What you are dealing with is, arguably, a case of social attention deficit hyperactive disorder. An entire society in need of ritalin.

 The world is drowning in an ocean of data, but data is not information and information is not knowledge. Data consists of bytes or small packets, which must be compiled into some kind of order so as to provide meaningful information. Thus the words ‘lion’, ‘fish’ and ‘eats’ are data, while ‘lion eats fish’ or ‘fish eats lion’ or ‘lionfish eats’ are alternative forms of information.

 There is a similar difference between ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. For knowledge to exist, small pieces of information must be collected and processed into some meaningful agglomeration, like molecules building into more complex organic systems. Knowledge is thus a construct which it takes time, patience, communication and experience to build.

 In the Dark Ages, knowledge was a treasure locked up behind monastic walls. In the Middle Ages, it was still the preserve of princes. With the dissolution of the monasteries in Britain knowledge began to be secularised, and the invention of printing revolutionised its spread.

 The information revolution which began with printing and has lately accelerated geometrically with the internet has certainly involved a knowledge revolution but the two are not the same and the one does not necessarily entail the other. From a world subdued in ignorance modern workers now face a perpetual storm of information from which it is perhaps becoming harder, not easier, to extract meaningful knowledge.

 It is not only the speed and intensity of this ‘data rain’ which swamps the mind. It is the fact that it is being broken down into smaller and smaller packets, knowledge being deconstructed, digitised, quantised and miniaturised for faster transmission. And to cope with this onslaught, the mind becomes less reflective and more selective, picking and choosing what it will process according to its preset value judgments, making it less rather than more likely that new ideas will be adopted. Time too is at a premium, and technology is taking knowledge away from the library and the desktop towards the e-reader and the smartphone, from email to Twitter, from debate to mere chat.

 Some futurists, like Ray Kursweil, have been predicting the advent of the Singularity, a technological point beyond which it is not possible to make any predictions at all. The nature of the Singularity is popularly supposed to be the development or evolution of true machine intelligence, but could it be that instead of machine intelligence rising to meet us, we simply sink until we pass it on the way down?

 Some say it’s Google making us ga-ga, others that it’s screen-burn to the brain. But where most such concerns are merely the same old bourgeois snootiness against youth or the lower orders, socialists have got legitimate reason to worry, because this could all play into the hands of capitalism. The ruling class loves to infantilise us, making us think we’re too dumb and childlike to take responsibility for ourselves without their ‘guiding’ authority. It would be scary to think that this might come to be true.

 Our best hope is for a political Singularity, something no techie is predicting. The Zeitgeist Movement appears to be making huge strides in popularising non-market production for use, and another group is calling for a World Strike against money in 2012. These might grow or they might fizzle out, like the anti-capitalist movement. But for such a post-capitalist society to succeed it cannot be imposed from above or gifted to the world by one or two visionaries. Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere are all useful means of communicating ideas, but they’re not oriented towards what is also necessary: focussed reflection and critical debate. It’s not that people are incapable of these abilities, but if they are not accustomed to them they may try to avoid them. The danger is the spread of soundbite socialism at the expense of depth.

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