Monday, May 6, 2013

Post # 83: Your Brain on "Search" and "Big Data"

I was chatting with a colleague recently about the wonders of technology and the response of the human mind to it.  I'm talking long-term response – evolutionary adaptation of the human mind and human behavior to the increasing role of technology in our lives.  While there are countless facets of this subject to explore, two I find particularly interesting (and a bit unsettling) are the potential influence of "Search" and "Big Data" on human cognitive capabilities.

The Impact of "Search" on the Evolution of the Human Mind

Most of us who spend time on our computers and the "net" rely heavily on search engines for our productivity.  With the "doubling time" of knowledge shrinking to just a few years, what else are we to do?  Think of it.  Traditional encyclopedias (e.g., The Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book Encyclopedia) are on life support.  Out of date before the ink is dry.  And how long since you used an "on-line" version of a traditional encyclopedia?  Can't remember? Why?  Because it's easier to fire-up our favorite "Search Engine" and "Google It" - or go to Wikipedia.  Knowing facts and information (rapidly evolving knowledge) is less important when Search Engines and Wikipedia are the universal portals to knowledge.

So this leads me to wonder... how long before our brains figure-out that retention of facts is less important when there's an (always and instantly accessible) universal conduit for information?  When information is instantly at our fingertips, we don't need to remember it. (Many of my friends in the educational business tell me their students' behavior already reflects a devaluation of memory.)  Still skeptical?  How many phone numbers do you remember now that they can be instantly recalled by your cell phone?  And how will our brain function adapt to this phenomenon?  Hard to imagine... One could see the human mind evolving to increase it's efficiency at assimilating tremendous volumes of data, but not retaining the information for more than very short periods of time (sort of like a college freshman on 5-Hour Energy cramming for tomorrow morning's final exam).  Think of it, long-term memory (except how and where to access our Search Engines and Wikipedia) becomes irrelevant!  Thus the ability to avoid "information" overload, filter out noise, and organize and assimilate information will become much more important.  This leads me to...

The Impact of "Big Data"on the Evolution of the Human Mind

A second evolutionary driver may well be the fact that insights gained via collection and analysis of "Big Data" may overwhelm the "need" to understand cause and effect relationships in our world.  With enough data and computing power, causality can be inferred ("if this happens, then that happens") without the necessity for any real understanding of the underlying fundamental phenomenology and physics of the phenomenon.  Institutions and individuals have grown quite wealthy applying this concept to the stock market since the first supercomputer began crunching stock performance data in endless regression and correlation analyses to determine what happens to the Dow Jones Industrial Average when it rains in Tasmania.  Similar techniques are being applied today to understand the global evolution of killer viruses and health pandemics.  Could we reach the point where simply knowing "A causes B" and the magnitude of that change, is more important than knowing why and how "A causes B"?  And if we do reach that point, how will our brains "reprogram" the functions of our cerebral real estate in response?  Will mankind lose the ability to understand the physics of causality?  Will he care?  Will it matter?

So much for pondering the inter-relationship of technology and the evolution of mens hominis.  Lots of simplifications and assumptions above, but fascinating to ponder...

Just Thinking...