What We Do Know, Don’t Know, and Need to Know About Knowledge
Every so often on social media the question goes around: “if you lived in X period of time in history, what knowledge and skills would you still have that would be useful?” So in the information age of digital knowledge, what is it that we know that will still be useful in the future?
In fact, the same force of technological progress may be accelerating society’s collective knowledge and at the same time allowing individuals to forget how to do things that used to be considered essential. That message comes out in rereading Nicholas Carr’s pessimistic 2008 Atlantic piece, and in the optimistic new book “Superminds”: The surprising power of people and computers thinking together.
Carr’s piece, which was the basis for the 2011 bestseller “The Shallows,” ends with a reference to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” in which Socrates warns against the dumbing down effects of writing. No longer would people have to carry important facets of their culture in their heads. But writing allowed people to collaborate over distance and time, expanding collective knowledge about the world in a way that had been impossible before. (Lucky for us, some of Socrates’ followers wrote down some of his ideas.)
Or consider the opening of the book “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Author Jared Diamond describes one of his scientific expeditions to New Guinea, where a high-ranking politician asks why the white people have more advanced technology than the local people do. Diamond spends the whole book pondering that question, but first he acknowledges that he lacked basic survival skills that were second nature to the New Guineans:
I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I’m with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter) at which New Guineans have been trained since childhood and I have not.
In the not-so-far future, people won’t know all kinds of things we now think essential to being “educated”: how to write in cursive, how to multiply and divide on paper, or how to spell most English words. Reading a paper map may seem as antiquated as celestial navigation. And the forgetting of skills is only going to continue as technology advances and incorporates artificial intelligence.
One take-home message in “Superminds” is that artificial intelligence is already here, and already changing the world. It’s beside the point whether a robot with humanlike intelligence is still 20 years away. The author – the management and information technology professor Thomas Malone – quipped at a book talk at MIT last month that people have been saying that humanlike robot intelligence is 20 years away for the last 60 years.
Oh, and by the way…don’t write off the sextant just yet:
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