I Has Seen the Future -- And We Is Dumb

Every night around the world, Google ruins countless dinner parties.

Humans are competitive beings. They are biologically engineered to argue, and through argument, reach the most effective conclusion. Google has stolen our right to ignorantly argue in a misguided effort to "organize the world's information." Every argument is now a Google search away from being finished.

While obviously tongue-in-cheek, this raises a serious question: What happens when they get there?

We are creating a society where historical knowledge and even real-time happenings are consumable on tap. Think about how your consumption of data has completely changed in only the last decade:

·       You can't get lost. You walk with your phone's map app streaming directions.

·       You don't stumble into a restaurant. You check Yelp first, and make reservations on OpenTable.



·       You can recall less than 10% of the phone numbers in your phone (if you remember more than 10%, you either have an incredible memory, or need more friends).

·       You don't need to memorize anything.

After 50,000 years of stored intelligence being a primary differentiator between man and lesser animals, we are within 100 years of no longer valuing the most basic form of human intelligence: memory.

We have spent the last 500 years celebrating memorization of facts in classrooms around the world. Yet, it is painfully obvious that the Internet has orders of magnitude more information than we could ever hope to remember.

We can now retrieve that information instantly on wireless devices, no matter where we are. In a world of mobile computing and wearable computing, we don't have to remember.

Are we rendering ourselves irrelevant?
Humans are intelligent beings. Despite what you may reasonably conclude if you watch Jerry Springer or hear Carl Paladino speak out loud, we are one of the very few animals on the planet capable of passing Gallup's Mirror Test.

What's the value of human memory in a world where all information is available? Is it relegated to purely personal experiences?

Are there even truly personal experiences in a world where everything is recorded?

The Post-Memory Era
It is not merely memorization of facts that no longer matters. Sense of direction is no longer valuable, recognition of faces and names no longer matters, and historical knowledge is irrelevant.

What is the purpose of a human brain in this context?

The answer, I believe, lies with the three fundamental facets of intelligence: input, retention, and processing. While input, and thereby retention, will cease to be differentiators, there is one place where humans will continue to add immense value: non-linear processing.

We excel at analyzing information in unique and non-obvious ways to reach interesting conclusions. This is the root of all innovation.

Every great entrepreneur in history existed because he or she saw the world differently. He saw opportunity where others saw problems. He saw a chance for change, for breaking down walls, and sometimes, for revolution.

Publishing, more than any time in the history of civilization, needs great entrepreneurs.

We need entrepreneurs to help us sift through the mountains of data available at our fingertips. Help us visualize it. Help us see the world differently. Help us make those non-obvious connections.

As the world devalues memory, it will crave unique perspectives more than ever.

13 comments about "I Has Seen the Future -- And We Is Dumb".
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  1. Russell Cross from Prentke Romich, December 9, 2010 at 12:46 p.m.

    Google is indeed a "show stopper" for arguments such as "what is the capital of Nigeria?" or "What was Madonna's first European single?" but pretty much still hopeless on matters of opinion - "Is abortion a good thing?" "Will Sarah Palin be a good president?" or "Does God exist?"

    There's also the area of "disputed facts" where Google can offer the disputes but not the definitive answers. And the actual veracity of any piece of information from the "interweb" thing is often ripe for discussion. The internet is still the mother of all lies; type "911 conspiracy" into any search engine to see just how inventive folks can be with "facts!"

    The other area of human intellectual endeavor that remains is opinion - an area in which blogging excels with, I suspect, more people writing blogs than reading them!

    Of course, it is in the area of "thinking" that we need to be educating our children because "facts" are just a Droid away. Any kid can Google what the "subjunctive mood" is but I'd be surprised if any were able to use it!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 9, 2010 at 1:17 p.m.

    History repeats itself. We haven't used our intelligence to read as much as we should in more variety and haven't memorized what happens when we forget. Again, the tulip credit default crisis in Europe during the 1600's has been sorrily forgotten. See banks and mortgages. We is gettin' dummer.

  3. Darrin Searancke from Halifax Chronicle Herald, December 9, 2010 at 1:26 p.m.

    I suffered a head injury several years back - my short term memory was about 24hrs. I had to work to return as a 'functioning' member of society - however, my memory (from the accident or old age) still fails me for passwords, phone numbers and user-names. These examples are tied to new technology, but still, I would be lost without my iPhone's 32GB of RAM (Recurring Accessed Memory)!

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 9, 2010 at 1:44 p.m.

    Knowledge itself never leads to success. It's the ability to effectively and persuasively communicate (and apply) that knowledge is what counts, and always has. You cannot Google a solution, campaign, or plan that fits a particular situation. I teach college and I can typically detect the difference between well-synthesized information and something pasted from Wikipedia.

  5. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., December 9, 2010 at 1:46 p.m.

    @Russell, you don't need Google for "will Sarah Palin be a good president" you just need common sense :)

    She wouldn't even be a good school board president.

  6. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., December 9, 2010 at 1:48 p.m.

    @Darrin, wow... really fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

    ...some days I wish I only had 24 hours of memory. That way I could forget all the terrible decisions I have made :)


  7. David Hawthorne from HCI LearningWorks, December 9, 2010 at 2:23 p.m.

    Human memory is way over rated. Most of what you are holding onto is factually "wrong." (Rember 'flat world', or 'boys are smarter than girls'?)

    Memory is, at best, imperfect. It also distorts. But it does and did have its strengths -like our ability to correct earlier mistakes (i.e. remember what we used to think, and then, change our minds so we could act more appropriately). You know, "Here little doggy! Ouch, damn mutt bit my frickin finger!" We remember not to to do that so much any more.

    The real problems is that most of what we store in digital memories is also wrong ---at least in its conclusions. It can produce 'facts' relevant to our actions in time,( like radar data for airplane pilots). It is already marginally better in most circumstances at "collision avoidance." But it's virtually useless for correcting the distortions of committed political radicals, or 'true' believers.

    The future of humanity will depend, as it does now, on judgement, not the recall of fungible facts. Nothing is different then it was, it is just further along than it was. That's why the media has to wake-up and realize the game is not about "content." It is about "apps" -structured little aggregators of content that let you do something with organized information that you couldn't do before or as quickly. The structured little sentences you write, and the little logos you draw, and clever titles you conceive -are basically on the ascendent portion of the arc before falling to oblivion. In fact, a well structured sentence IS and kind of app.

    What matters is what people can "do" (act on) with whatever information you have gathered and organized. Search Engines are immature apps. There is much more to be learned about how "information" can be a "fact" now and later be an "error" and how we can use those dynamics to our advantage. WSJ has less problem getting paid for its content then others do, because its history of "selling" information for "making money" is in its DNA (or rather Dow Jones culture). Sports scores? Not so much. To find a market for that information you have to go to the betting sheets. But people pay for them too. It's an APP! Hang in there, one day we will all be less dumb than we are now. -DH

  8. Robert Formentin from *, December 9, 2010 at 2:42 p.m.

    I disagree with the idea that we are getting dumber. First, this piece could have been written 250 years ago when printing was invented. Same premise. In fact many people of that period were also voicing the same concerns.
    Are we rendering ourselves irrelevant? Is memory irrelevant? No.
    What's the value of human memory in a world where all information is available? Memory or a lack of it is the reason so much of our past history (as recent as 100 years ago) has been lost. It's always been finite. Over the centuries we've used many tools to help our memory - books for one.
    Our ability to access stored information quickly is the reason why we’ve made such incredible progress in the past 50 years. Past inventions and ideas (the fact that bacteria causes illness) sometimes took a century to be widely accepted because of the lack of information dissemination.
    Look at it this way. The world will (hopefully) retain a complete record of our recent history for the next generations to study and learn from, building and expanding global knowledge, and our ability to share information with anyone, anywhere, will lead us to more breathtaking breakthroughs, such as gene sequencing and influenza vaccine development, making our world an even better place to live in.
    The fact is we’re getting smarter.

  9. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., December 9, 2010 at 8 p.m.

    @David, great thinking and couldn't agree any more about the importance of the app (it's been the topic of several previous columns).

    @Robert, while there is no arguing the biological reality that we are in fact evolving as a race, our "progress" cuts both ways.

    I'm far from an environmentalist (I drive an SUV, and eat as much red meat as possible), but it seems obvious that every year our collective intelligence seems only capable of pushing our Planet closer to the brink of disaster.

    Collective Intelligence is an oxymoron.

  10. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, December 10, 2010 at 3:50 a.m.

    Great post. I've actually used the memory that was once reserved for phone numbers to learn another language and memorize the words to great songs. One should take the time to know one's passport number and, of course, anyone who can't name their social security number is dumb. ;)

  11. Robert Formentin from *, December 10, 2010 at 9:20 a.m.

    @David K

    How do you equate environmental issues with memory and intelligence?

    I learned (and can recall from memory) that a little over 200 years ago humans didn't understand that dirty water spread cholera yet freely consumed it, that lead and mercury were toxic, yet used it with abandon, that burning coal to heat homes caused smog and lung disease. Children and women had no rights as recently as 100 years ago. Humans foolishly destroyed the accumulated knowledge of previous societies, setting us back 100s if not 1000s of years.
    Our world isn't perfect, and yes we will continue to make mistakes that may affect the environment, but you can't convince me that we are dumber, as a species.

  12. Jon Levy from Hype Circle, December 13, 2010 at 3:31 p.m.

    I've made it a point to embrace digital storage. I moved my whole company to Google Apps, we do almost everything in the browser, we share large files with Dropbox, our photos live on Picasa, we chat on Skype - our CRM lives in the cloud with Intuit's Quickbase, happily storing every transaction we make and every contact we communicate with. My phonebook lives on my Android phone, my streams of consciousness get typed into digital notes, I read the Times (NY, LA, and London) on an Ipad, and my books are now read on Kindle - heck, I even store all my passwords online because there are too many to remember.

    Having been in business for 20 years, I can say that my desktop (the wooden one, not the digital one) has never been so neat and tidy.

    Then sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat and think - what if the power grid goes down? I don't even remember by daughter's mobile phone number :(

  13. Robert Formentin from *, December 17, 2010 at 4:31 p.m.


    If the power grid goes down you won't be able to call your daughter even if you did remember her number.

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