In high school, we had an Algebra/Trigonometry teacher that skipped entire chapters of a text book after showing us how to perform the formulas described therein on our calculators (those outrageously complicated Texas Instruments gadgets, for those who might recall). His contention was that there was no reason any longer to have to learn how to calculate formulas, now that they could so easily be done on a calculator. Unfortunately, especially for a teacher, he was someone who fully embraced the grand notion of the complete functionality of artificial intelligence, and in doing so, completely disregarded the point that without the ability to understand how something works, you never really possess the knowledge.
Technological advancements are indisputably powerful, but, as in the case of my former math teacher, terribly misunderstood. The superfluity of information that is a result of our ability to make everything available through technological advancements is also misaligned. We are so entrenched in the notion that information is knowledge, and that knowledge is power, I suppose we figured a lot more information would be absolutely powerful. Computerization and access to information via the internet carried us away in our enthusiasm and hunger for more in order to feel authoritative and in control. As a result, we have completely forgotten that information is not knowledge.
It does not follow that an overload of information and intelligence gives anyone command over anything. Information overload, like anything else that overwhelms us, effectively shuts us down and inhibits our ability to think. How many people do you know that cannot make heads or tails of how to make a software program like Windows Excel actually work as a basic spreadsheet? How formulas work together to come to a conclusion must first be understood in order to make the spreadsheet program work. There might be a thousand help pages, forums and sites to guide us, but none of them actually teach us anything. It’s all just raw information, and a lot of it.
I recently started watching the BBC “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” TV series with Alec Guinness. It was released on DVD about 10 or so years ago, post 9/11, and on the first disc is a long interview with author John le Carré about making the series, his history in the British secret service, and a little analysis of 20th vs. 21st century spying industry. He had fantastic insight into the difference between information and knowledge:
When you combine a huge boom in electronic intelligence with a corresponding loss in human intelligence, then you reach constipation point; where you are ingesting huge amounts of unrefined intelligence, and you are not properly synthesizing it… So many times [they look] retrospectively, and all the information was there when they looked, but they never used it. And that’s because they have too much. And so, the irony is, in our super-technological age, we find a glut of electronic intelligence and so little human intelligence….I’m convinced that there is such a thing as too much knowledge, or let’s say, too much information and very little knowledge…The horror story of 9/11 and the failure of intelligence, I think, does present us with a very real example of what can go wrong when you have too much detail, insufficient intelligent evaluation, good brain power, good people [on the ground]…
Le Carré further points out the negative impact of replacing large volumes artificial intelligence with real knowledge; that it impedes the ability to focus, giving way to the inability to prioritize. The result is, as Shakespeare put it, “…the sound and the fury, signifying nothing…;” having mass amounts of information that is literally looking everywhere at the same time, but assessing nothing.
We can program software and hardware to mimic our humanity, even give it rudimentary functionality, as in robotics and calculators. The challenge, as with so many things, is finding the balance point: How to consume what technology produces; the information gives or its ability to perform a task, but not to ever lose the ability to think and intuit.
Both Stein, in her quote above, and le Carré are saying the same thing: There’s nothing that can replace inherent intellectual, emotional and intuitive human intelligence. Even digital animators recognize they cannot replace the performance of a human being. They begin with the actors, either in a sound studio, ironically performing an old-fashioned radio play and filming their physical reactions to use as a reference when creating their digital characters, or suiting them up in strange head-to-toe unitards equipped with sensors for the software to electronically convert to 3-D digital image structures. Otherwise, they are left with something like Apple’s iPhone “Siri,” which has proved to be nothing more than a novel cocktail party game.
Yes, it is a very sharp double-edged sword, for none of us want to become so focused on a finite group of priorities, selecting what information we will take in versus what we will ignore, that we find ourselves classified as narrow-minded. But, the feeling of being overwhelmed is the confusion felt when we don’t know where to look or how to convey the information we have at hand. We have lost our ability to prioritize what information is necessary and therefore our ability to focus. We must retain the ability to think and assess, and therefore maintain the intellectual skill to cut through the morass of superfluous detail without becoming, at the same time, one-dimensional automatons.
So, it’s not the volume of information that’s important, as le Carré points out, or the ease by which we can now receive it, as my former math teacher mistakenly understood, but how we learn to process it. We should seek only to enrich our natural ability to think, feel, appreciate the nuances of life, and therefore be able to evaluate any number of life’s situations, as Stein’s quote highlights.
By the way…I learned at my 10-year high school reunion that my math teacher and several others from the math/sciences department were dismissed in a single sweep after a class-action styled complaint was served to the school board by former students. It wasn’t an actual legal suit, but the former students, along with their parents, nevertheless proved their case that the lack of a proper secondary school “AP” math education was a significant disadvantage in their chosen field in math and/or science. For most of us, the point of taking the AP classes was simply to have the ability to skip some of the General Requirements our first year in college. But those who filed the complaint outlined that, because they were unable to pass rudimentary algebra, trigonometry and calculus tests, they were required to take additional basic math classes, and be able to pass them, before being allowed to move ahead with their major studies in math and sciences.
Anyway, simply put, nothing will ever replace real knowledge.