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Using your Google Brain

Over the last year I've been using a new party discussion gambit which consists of positing that "Google makes me smarter." The resulting discussion quickly separates the digiterati from the illinternet sheep.

Why? Because it is true! Using Google as an outboard memory system for our brains results in a net increase of our apparent intelligence. In fact this is so demonstrably true that even the old media is starting to notice. Although, predictably, they warn of the dangers rather than exploring the positive; reminding me of similar articles from the 1970's describing how kids were starting to use calculators in school, all of which invariably ended in dire predictions of impending innumeracy. (Ignoring the fact that you have to understand math conceptually in order to use a calculator in the first place. Which should be your first clue that the writers of such articles are probably innumerate themselves, if they think math consists of memorizing the multiplication tables.)

The same applies to your 'Google Brain'; you must understand a little about the subject you are searching for specific information on, and a lot about the Internet in general (including the fact that not everything you find is going to be correct), in order to construct a good search request and get the most from a search result.

Moreover, let me extend the phrase 'Google Brain' to include all Internet searches, all use of resource sites (like Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project), and all tag-based emergent discovery systems (like del.icio.us and Technorati Tags). In all of these cases your 'Google Brain' must separate a few kernels of wheat from an immensely larger mass of useless chaff, with the searches and resource sites only doing the first winnowing step for you. Afterwards you must still apply your own judgment, knowledge, and experience to select which web sites will get some of your precious attention. And you will resent expending attention on a web page that turns out to be useless, to the point that you will remember that site again if another page from it turns up in a future search, and not bother with it.

So your Google Brain isn't the Internet itself — it is your ability to construct search terms and to decide which results are most likely to be relevant. Your ability to compare competing results and to decide which has the most authority. Your ability to pick out the wheat once the chaff has been reduced enough that the wheat is visible.

Your Google Brain is the way you use the mind tool that the Internet is. Just like calculators made some of us better at math than we might otherwise have been by allowing us to use outboard 'math processors' within the structure of our conceptual understanding of math, so does the Google Brain make us better at knowing things (insignificant or profound) when we need to know them by using an outboard 'knowledge processor'.

Twenty years from now pretty much everyone will have a Google Brain, to a greater or lesser extent, and the news media will be griping about how there are inherent dangers in neural interfaces.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2005 10:56 pm (UTC)
There's a Bay Area fan who stared using eBay/Alibris/Amazon/Powells as his outboard library. He realized that he could sell much of his collection realizing that if he really wanted something, he could order it quickly on line.
Dec. 28th, 2005 11:18 pm (UTC)
I guess that is one area where I'm behind the curve; I like books too much to get rid of them. I really have a serious problem with bibliophilia, to the extent that, even after several major cullings, I am currently storing somewhere in the tens of thousands of books.

I'm not certain what to do about it either. Although, if I had a way to scan all of them into a computer I might be able to convince myself to reduce the collection to the thousand or so that are signed by the author or otherwise have some emotional meaning to me.
Dec. 28th, 2005 11:35 pm (UTC)
The ephemeral stuff is even harder to deal with.

There's tons of comics and manga with a shorter half-life than books, but take up space, and don't have the best resale market.
Dec. 29th, 2005 11:27 pm (UTC)
I was contemplating this topic (outboard libraries) for the nth time this very morning.

One thing I've wanted for a long time is a lending library that cares about the books I care about. And cares about them enough to keep them available in their collection forever. I live in the Seattle area and so have both the King County Library System and the Seattle Public Library to pull from and still can't get all the books I'd like to be able to read. (just for example, there's only three of Megan Lindholm's books in both systems together) I'd gladly pay for the privilege of membership in a library that would guarantee my access to the history of SF.

Anybody know if there has been or is an effort in fandom to create such a thing? I'm probably radically underestimating the quantity of material this would be...
Dec. 29th, 2005 11:45 pm (UTC)
There is such a library associated with Andre Norton that, I believe, has been kept going since her death. It isn't a lending library as such, but is meant to provide access to source materials and genre samples for other writers.

Many writers are also bibliophiles, and some of them have amazing collections (although I doubt they would want to lend the books out). In the Seattle area Greg Bear and Amy Thompson in particular have excellent personal libraries.

What would be required for such a library? Obviously the physical place to store and organize the books. Some labor in maintaining the collection and handling loans/getting back late books, etc. Some kind of insurance to cover losses and/or damage. And the books themselves, of course. Am I missing anything?

In any case it seems likely you could put something together within SF fandom for this kind of thing. If I had some surety that the books would not be lost or damaged I would even contribute part of my personal collection to help jump-start it. I would certainly will my collection to such a thing, Ghu knows there isn't anyone in my family (aside from Anita) that would do anything with the collection other than sell it for a fraction of its worth.
Dec. 29th, 2005 02:26 pm (UTC)
I did that long ago. Much cheaper than buying, storing, and moving a library.

Dec. 28th, 2005 11:55 pm (UTC)
Love it!
Jack, love this post. I've often thought about how Google extends ourselves, about how we become smarter through the increased and instant access to 'knowledge'.

What you're pointing out is something that I've not really considered...that the page rank algorithm is analogous to the development and ongoing process of human thinking and intelligence. The algorithm's ability to sort wheat from chaff is arguably the *critical form* of pattern recognition - this is capability is what really makes people and systems 'smart'.
Dec. 29th, 2005 12:36 am (UTC)
Re: Love it!

There are a lot of emergent properties to these tools; things that only show up because of the huge numbers of websites and people participating in them. That is both the coolest thing about the Google Brain and the most unpredictable thing about it. Yet the end result wasn't entirely unexpected. See Vannevar Bush's Memex concept for one.
Dec. 29th, 2005 12:01 am (UTC)
I don't know if Google (et al) "makes me smarter," because "smartness" is so ill-defined. (Intelligence seems easy to define for a group but quite difficult for an individual. For a group it's a form of Larmarckian evolution: "the ability to pass on acquired behavioral characteristics to the next generation.")

On the other hand there's the object known as intelligence: useful/important/interesting/etc. information. And G+ definitely allows me to acquire some intelligence faster than I was in the "old world."

One aspect you touch on but don't quite hit solidly -- as well as portal and search type sites, each person's G+ brain also includes a repertory of "frequently used" sites, ones that person know s/he can go to for useful information on topics of particular interest to hir. Over the years I've built up a massive bookmarks folder, and had to find better and better ways of organizing it -- that in and of itself has become a significant problem for some of us; at this point there's some good money or props or whatever waiting for someone who can come up with a better bookmark manager than the ones built into IE, Netscape, Firefox, Opera, Safari, etc.
Dec. 29th, 2005 12:39 am (UTC)
For organizing my (huge) linklist and also for making it available to me wherever I am I use del.icio.us. In fact, if you click the "Jack's Tasty Links" link at the top of my blog page you will go to my del.icio.us page.
Dec. 29th, 2005 12:28 am (UTC)
Interesting how the tools we use extend our reach--but also shape the ways we think and structure the world.

Data point: After years of debates over how to organize the library in a multiple-adult household with over 10,000 books, I realized I had been unconsciously organizing by the principles of the Dewey Decimal System. (I read much more nonfiction, and more varied nonfiction, than my housemates, and I always have. Apparently I absorbed the Dewey Decimal System during my ill-spent, library-haunting youth.)
Dec. 29th, 2005 12:44 am (UTC)
Nice point. My Google Brain definately results in my thinking about things differently than I did before I had one. Also interesting that I sometimes don't bother to commit things to memory or make notes anymore because I can always pull it up again pretty easily. As a result I only expend serious mental effort to remember things that act as relationships between sets of other things — exactly the kind of thing you can't search for easily.
Dec. 29th, 2005 12:33 am (UTC)
the g+ brain is definitely an advantage. Also, I joined the ACM just so I could get access to books 24/7 and safari. Now I have alot of reference material online, wherever I go. Pretty handy that.

Dec. 29th, 2005 12:50 am (UTC)
Re: yup.
Heh. Related to the book discussion above; if I had all the books I love online, would I be able to get rid of most of my dead-tree editions? I certainly don't mind reading from a computer screen, so that isn't an impediment.

OTOH I can't see myself going completely without dead-tree books. I just wish they were easier to search.
Dec. 29th, 2005 02:16 am (UTC)
Re: yup.
your mission. Start your own online library accessible to you or your family. Make it open source, make it installable from a live cd and use normal scanners or one of these:
Dec. 29th, 2005 02:38 am (UTC)
Re: yup.
You googled for those, didn't you. :-)
Dec. 29th, 2005 03:13 am (UTC)
What me?

Dec. 29th, 2005 11:34 pm (UTC)
I've found myself using Google to answer random questions that come up in gatherings of family and friends (I'm usually lurking behind a laptop anyway). It's made me realize how often questions used to come up that we'd ask of the room at large, and just shrug our shoulders (or speculate wildly) when no clear answer was immediately forthcoming. Now, virtually no question need remain unanswered.

There are disadvantages to this, especially for the easily distracted.
Dec. 4th, 2006 07:15 am (UTC)
Who listens to what music?
Hello. Good day
Who listens to what music?
I Love songs Justin Timberlake and Paris Hilton
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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