information overload

Hilarious preface: I just found this draft sitting unpublished from 6 months ago. Ironic that I’d write a long post about the brain, memory, learning and information ability and then … forget about it entirely. I rule.

I’ve joked with friends a lot in the past about how smartphones have become the ultimate conversation-killer. Gone are the days of yore when over a casual beer with friends, hours of conversation could be stoked by asking a trivial question: “Who was it that played Frankenstein’s monster in Young Frankenstein again?” Hours of conversation later, you’ve argued about who it was or wasn’t, you’ve covered Mel Brooks’ films, discussed the best and worst, and embarked down countless tangents, before finally coming around and remembering who it was. (Peter Boyle, by the way – RIP) These days, it’s more like “Who was it that played Frankenstein’s monster in Young Frankenstein again?” Everyone whips out their iPhone, googling furiously. “Peter Boyle.” “Ah.. Ah, yeah. yeah, that’s right.” *awkward silence* *checks twitter* “Alright, you guys are boring, I’m outta here.”

I’m jokingly focusing on the negative aspect, and obviously information availability is not inherently a conversation killer (although anyone that has sat down to a table full of people staring at the iphones checking into 4square, twittering, or googling something can quickly make you long for the days before the smartphone). But really, the whole phenomenon actually fascinates me. Like anyone else, I consider myself a pretty curious person.. I’m motivated by, if nothing else, the desire to constantly keep learning. Most of my shower time is spent mentally iterating through the list of trivia/questions I keep meaning to look up but always forgetting. (This morning: does the Coriolis effect actually affect drain spiral direction or not, I can’t remember!) (Answer: no). Unfortunately I’ve inherited my father’s capacity for memory, so I usually forget I even wondered about it between the shower and the computer.

So, it’s one thing now to be able to sit down at a computer or whip out a device and look up basically anything I’d ever want to know – but can you imagine what a gamechanger this will become once the dawn of embedded/wearable/integrated computing really breaks? When the answer to “I wonder …?” is literally instantly available to your brain? Further, forget what this means for an old, used-up, caffeine and booze-addled brain like mine – can you imagine what this means for children with brains that soak up information like a sponge? It fascinates me. Scientists have been forever hypothesizing on the information capacity of the human brain in various ways (a straight neuron-to-bit analysis puts estimates at somewhere between 500 to 1000 terabytes), but I think we’re on the verge of actually being able to test this out via sheer information overload.

Also, think about the weird social dynamics this changes. When you’re sitting around shooting the shit with someone, and someone asks “Who was it that played Frankenstein’s Monster in Young Frankenstein again?” and the douchebag across from you answers, is it because he’s actually seen and appreciated the majesty of Young Frankenstein, or did he just google it on his Apple iBrainSync? Do those sorts of conversations even happen anymore? What’s the point, if it’s a given that everyone has the world’s knowledgebase at their fingertips? Is there even a point to actually learning facts at all? Or, to put it less despairingly: how does this change the approach we take to true learning? Anyone familiar with computer programming can tell you that there’s a difference between programming skill and knowledge of programming language specifics. A good programmer will probably have no idea if PHP’s strstr() argument order is needle/haystack or haystack/needle. Actually learning this is hard, because of PHP’s woeful inconsistency. Looking it up, however, is trivial. (Unsurprisingly, this makes interviewing/hiring a good programmer difficult – it’s not something that is easily tested for via evaluating trivial minutia/specifics. I’m looking at you, Brainbench.) Now imagine this sort of dichotomy applied to … everything. How do we decide what’s important to actually learn versus merely knowing how to look up?

The future’s gonna be weird, man.