Love the Machine — Cognitive Augmentation and Connection

Love the machine; hate the factory.

– Steam Punk Magazine

I don’t memorize things anymore, at least not facts, and why should I? They are a Google away. I don’t know anyone’s phone number, and I don’t have to: I just tap on their face in my contacts list. I don’t write down directions; I just type the address on my phone, or better yet, Google Now tells me when to leave and how to get there. If I need to do math or unit conversion, a simple search returns the answer. In a sense, cognitive augmentation is already here.

I also consume streams of information digitally. For me, there are three major ones — e-mail, RSS, and Twitter — the most prevalent being e-mail, an overlay to my social and professional lives. I don’t use Facebook much, but for many, it serves as an adjunct to or, at times, a replacement for their social lives. My understanding of what happens in the world each day comes through a self-curated RSS feed — comments on breaking news, art, editorials. It’s my newspaper in a digital format. Lastly, I use Twitter situationally — watching the Oscars, on election night, or at an event watching comments in real-time. These streams act as a digital addendum to the physical world. I almost said “real world” there, but that’s not quite right. These streams are a form of digital connection, in pseudo-real time, to the Internet.

The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.

– Antoine de St. Exupery

Google and similar tools are a form of cognitive augmentation that multiplies our capacity — this gives us depth. Twitter and other social tools are a form of connection that adds a new dimension, extending our presence — and this gives us breadth. We’re at the early stage of science fiction, plugging into Gibson’s cyberspace or the Matrix.

These are kludgy solutions, not physically integrated…yet. But I do feel integrated. When not online, I feel like I’m missing a piece of my mind (I say this in all seriousness). I have urges to look things up, to be “plugged into” the streams. My mind is accustomed to having access to the Internet. For me, it feels physical on some level, and as we strap Fitbits to our wrists and wear Google Glass, the boundary will blur more.

Setting aside the inevitability of it all, is this a good or bad thing? In hindsight, I think we’d all agree that replacing humans (as an implement of labor) with horses and then tractors (machines) was a good idea for farming. Why is this different? Why memorize states and capitals and presidents and multiplication tables? Does this make us better thinkers or problem solvers? Certainly, we should learn the theory — how to do the math, interpret statistics, even derive equations, but why learn facts? Why not work on unique, complicated problems or design something or learn through experience? Why not replace the mental labor of math or facts with augmentation? It frees us up to work on bigger, more interesting, more complicated, more creative problems.

I’m not quite ready to put an internet jack in my head, but I am incredibly excited about our access to increasingly powerful tools of cognition. Just because Big Blue can beat us in chess doesn’t mean it will turn into Hal. Logic is basic by definition: it’s breaking down a concept to a set of rules. It’s the big questions that are interesting. The future belongs to those who can harness the machines.

But the reason is not that the computer will “take over” the decision. The reason is that with the computer’s taking over computation, people all the way down the line in the organization will have to learn to be executives and to make effective business decisions.

– Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, 1967