[Paleopsych] NYT: Intelligence in the Internet age

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Intelligence in the Internet age

    Stefanie Olsen, Staff Writer, CNET News.com

    It's a question older than the Parthenon: Do innovations and new
    technologies make us more intelligent?

    A few thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher, as he snacked on dates
    on a bench in downtown Athens, may have wondered if the written
    language folks were starting to use was allowing them to avoid
    thinking for themselves.

    Today, terabytes of easily accessed data, always-on Internet
    connectivity, and lightning-fast search engines are profoundly
    changing the way people gather information. But the age-old question
    remains: Is technology making us smarter? Or are we lazily reliant on
    computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?

    "Our environment, because of technology, is changing, and therefore
    the abilities we need in order to navigate these highly
    information-laden environments and succeed are changing," said Susana
    Urbina, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida
    who has studied the roots of intelligence.

    If there is a good answer to the question, it probably starts with a
    contradiction: What makes us intelligent--the ability to reason and
    learn--is staying the same and will never fundamentally change because
    of technology. On the other hand, technology, from pocket calculators
    to the Internet, is radically changing the notion of the intelligence
    necessary to function in the modern world.

    Take Diego Valderrama, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in
    San Francisco. If he were an economist 40 years ago, he may have used
    a paper, pencil and slide rule to figure out and chart by hand how the
    local economy might change with a 1 percent boost in taxes. But
    because he's a thoroughly modern guy, he uses knowledge of the C++
    programming language to create mathematical algorithms to compute
    answers and produce elaborate projections on the impact of
    macroeconomic changes to work forces or consumer consumption.

    Does that mean he's not as bright as an economist from the 1950s? Is
    he smarter? The answer is probably "no" on both counts. He traded one
    skill for another. Computer skills make him far more efficient and
    allow him to present more accurate--more intelligent--information. And
    without them, he'd have a tough time doing his job. But drop him into
    the Federal Reserve 40 years ago, and a lack of skill with the slide
    rule could put an equal crimp on his career.

    Intelligence, as it impacts the economist Valderrama, is our capacity
    to adapt and thrive in our own environment. In a Darwinian sense, it's
    as true now as it was millions of years ago, when man's aptitude for
    hearing the way branches broke or smelling a spore affected his power
    to avoid predators, eat and survive.

    But what makes someone smart can vary in different cultures and
    situations. A successful Wall Street banker who has dropped into the
    Australian Outback likely couldn't pull off a great Crocodile Dundee
    impression. A mathematical genius like Isaac Newton could be--in fact,
    he was--socially inept and a borderline hermit. A master painter?
    Probably not so good at balancing a checkbook.

    What's undeniable is the Internet's democratization of information.
    It's providing instant access to information and, in a sense,
    improving the practical application of intelligence for everyone.

    Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford didn't have the Internet, but he did
    have a bunch of smart guys. The auto industry pioneer, as a parlor
    trick, liked to claim he could answer any question in 30 minutes. In
    fact, he had organized a research staff he could call at any time to
    get him the answer.

    Today, you don't have to be an auto baron to feign that kind of
    knowledge. You just have to be able to type G-O-O-G-L-E. People can in
    a matter of minutes find sources of information like court documents,
    scientific papers or corporate securities filings.

    "The notion that the world's knowledge is literally at your fingertips
    is very compelling and is very beguiling," said Vint Cerf, who
    co-created the underlying architecture of the Internet and who is
    widely considered one of its "fathers." What's exciting "is the
    Internet's ability to absorb such a large amount of information and
    for it to be accessible to other people, even if they don't know it
    exists or don't know who you are."

    Indeed, Doug Engelbart, one of the pioneers of personal computing
    technology in the 1960s, envisioned in the early '60s that the PC
    would augment human intelligence. He believes that society's ability
    to gain insight from information has evolved with the help of

    "The key thing about all the world's big problems is that they have to
    be dealt with collectively," Engelbart said. "If we don't get
    collectively smarter, we're doomed."

    The virtual memory
    According to at least one definition, intelligence is the "ability to
    reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and
    language, and learn." Yet intelligence is not just about book learning
    or test scores; it also reflects a deeper understanding of the world.
    On average, people with high IQs are thought to live longer, earn more
    money, process information faster and have larger working memories.

    Yet could all this information provided by the Internet and gadgets
    dampen our motivation to remember anything?

    Working with the Treo handheld computing device he helped create, Jeff
    Hawkins can easily recount exactly what he did three years ago on
    Sept. 8, factor 9,982 and Pi, or describe a weather system over the
    Pacific Ocean. But without his "smart" phone, he can't recall his
    daughter's telephone number offhand.

    It's a familiar circumstance for people living in the hyper-connected
    Internet age, when it has become easier to program a cell phone or
    computer--instead of your brain--to recall facts or other essential
    information. In some sense, our digital devices do the thinking for us
    now, helping us with everything from calendar scheduling and local
    directions to in-depth research and "Jeopardy"-like trivia.

    "It's true we don't remember anything anymore, but we don't need to,"
    said Hawkins, the co-founder of Palm Computing and author of a book
    called "On Intelligence."

    "We might one day sit around and reminisce about having to remember
    phone numbers, but it's not a bad thing. It frees us up to think about
    other things. The brain has a limited capacity, if you give it
    high-level tools, it will work on high-level problems," he said.

    Only 600 years ago, people relied on memory as a primary means of
    communication and tradition. Before the printed word, memory was
    essential to lawyers, doctors, priests and poets, and those with
    particular talents for memory were revered. Seneca, a famous teacher
    of rhetoric around A.D. 37, was said to be able to repeat long
    passages of speeches he had heard years before. "Memory," said Greek
    playwright Aeschylus, "is the mother of all wisdom."

    People feared the invention of the printing press because it would
    cause people to rely on books for their memory. Today, memory is more
    irrelevant than ever, argue some academics.

    "What's important is your ability to use what you know well. There are
    people who are walking encyclopedias, but they make a mess of their
    lives. Getting a 100 percent on a written driving test doesn't mean
    you can drive," said Robert Sternberg, dean of Arts and Sciences at
    Tufts University and a professor of psychology.

    Tomorrow: A look at what makes us smart in the Internet age. And what
    happens when the lights go out?

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