How’s this for a provocative title: “Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans.” This is a book by Simon Head, published last February and reviewed by Robert Skidelsky in the latest issue of New York Review of Books. I haven’t read the book yet, but the title alone is a surefire conversation prompt. For starters, let’s all agree we’re surrounded by smart machines that have computational, analytical, storage and retrieval capabilities we couldn’t imagine 10 years ago. Not that long ago, researchers and correspondents were tethered to their volumes. Libraries were a routine and necessary destination and telephone or telegraph lines were indispensable tools for communicating information long distance.
Today, vast libraries comprising countless volumes can be accessed from a cell phone. Documents can be transmitted wirelessly from almost anywhere on earth. In fact, four years ago I was able to conclude the supporting research and transmit a column from the wilds of northern Uganda thanks to the wonders of modern technology. So, the first part of Mr. Head’s title is not controversial. Yes, machines are a lot smarter today.
But Head’s title seems to accept, as fact, two additional propositions that bear some inspection: (1) humans are getting dumber, and (2) the smart machines are causing or contributing to the “densification” of humanity. No doubt Mr. Head has assembled and presented an impressive body of evidence proving his book’s thesis. Until we’ve read it, we’re in no position to say, one way or the other, whether he’s made his point. We can, however, use his title as a launch pad for discussion of our own day-to-day observations.
So, what do you think? Are people getting denser as our machines grow smarter? While you think about it, let me offer some interesting tidbits that may or may not factor in your thinking.
At one time, the American educational system was the greatest in the world. American students were global leaders in almost every subject. According to the most recent statistics, American students, when compared to the students in other developed nations, rank below average in science, mathematics and understanding. Granted, these statistics may not indicate that American students are getting “dumber.” They may simply suggest that, compared to the rest of the developed world, the American educational system is stagnant.
There does seem to be a growing epidemic of Americans who have lost or are rapidly losing their abilities to engage in critical thought. There are lots of examples I could give, but let me share one with you. A recent headline in the Washington Times announced, “Alaska petition to secede to Russia going strong at 18K signers.” According to the story, a petition called “Alaska Back to Russia” is currently on file with the White House. This is no joke. I checked the White House website myself and the number of signatories on that petition are now approaching 30,000. According to this petition, Alaska should rightfully be considered a part of Russia and Russian sovereignty over Alaskan territory should be recognized. OK, this is dumb.
But this type of “dumbness” isn’t limited to Americans. An editorial in the English version of Pravda trumpets, “This century Russia has stood on its feet like a champion with the help of Pres. Putin and his team of experts … Russia is the rising sun in the East and people from other countries want to join her … Russia’s renewed faith will heal world … Alaska has had more than 25,000 people who have signed a petition to secede from the U.S.” The editorial goes on to boast that Ukraine and other nations (in addition to the American state of Alaska) will ultimately be members of the growing state of “mother Russia.” One suspects the writer of this column might not be living in the same reality as the rest of the world.
Surely there are not 30,000 bona fide American adults who actually believe Alaska would be better off as part of the Russian Empire. Surely the bulk of the signatures on this ridiculous petition are bogus. Thirty-thousand Americans can’t be that dumb — can they?
But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose the signatures were not taken from the rolls of deceased Americans. Suppose they’re bona fide. If that proves to be the case, I propose we commission a research project. I might be wrong, but I suspect researchers would discover that Mr. Head is correct. The bulk of Americans advocating that Alaska would be better off as a Russian territory will be found to have eaten way too many smart phones and spent far too many hours alone in subterranean bunkers with video games and buzzards. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.