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Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Could be. An article in the current Atlantic considers how we acquire information, and the effect of our snippet-seeking culture on our brains and on our society. When was the last time you read a book? When was the last time you lost yourself in thought? Our brains rewire themselves, adapting to the conditions around us. The printing press changed not only how books are produced, but how readers' brains process information. Same story with the computer, it seems.

Have you been reading less and enjoying it more? Do you find yourself feeling bored after ten minutes of reading? Do you ever visit the library anymore?

Google is engaged in a massive experiment, and we are the willing, enthusiastic lab rats. We flock to the feeder, feeling fortunate. We read a paragraph or two and feel as if we've mastered the subject. We can chat endlessly online, but can we hold up our end of a real, face-to-face conversation? (Try posting a longer-than-two paragraph entry into an online discussion group and just see if you don't get people complaining about your "long-windedness!" As you might complain about mine now?)

This piece also looks at what happened when clocks proliferated. Instead of being oriented to the cues surrounding us, we became dependent upon a machine to tell us what time it is. Our experience of time, consequently, is much different than it was before clocks were handy.

In the same way, once MS-Project was available on every desk top, it became unthinkable to plan without it. We feel as if we're better provisioned, but this piece outlines some of what we're losing along the way.

I won't rail long today about what we're losing along the way. I recognize that the world my grandparents inhabited was materially different than the world we inhabit today. And that I am a different species than they were. I am better provisioned and, curiously, less well-provisioned at the same time.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, the self-proclaimed father of "scientific management", insisted a hundred years ago that while work was once all about "men," it will someday be all about "the system." What he claimed would be "the one best way;" continuously refined, feeding while feeding upon its followers.

The problem is not that we will produce a computer that thinks like we do, but that we will start to think like computers. The evidence seems clear that we are well along that path already. Von Forester failed to predict this outcome when he proclaimed that no computer could ever be programmed to think like a human. Humans are (or should I say, "were then?") naturally able to cope with non-trivial situations, yielding inevitable uncomputability for any computer attempting to think like us. But what if we began thinking like computers, shunning the non-trivial. Rewiring our own brains by interacting with computers so that we think like computers, couldn't computers suddenly, miraculously think just like us?

I started this entry thinking it was a side-track birdwalk from the current series on management-ism, but now I'm thinking that maybe, just maybe, it covers the next logical part of the story. What management was when work was about "men" is quite different than what management must be if work is about "the system." The ever-refined system is engineered to omit the diversity and variety any cadre of "men" would naturally bring to their collective efforts. Once individuals learn to submit to "the system," management becomes about the care and feeding of the system. What sustains the "men" involved? With practice, with iteration, we will no longer feel as Taylor's subjects at Midvale Steel felt, that they were mere cogs in a machine. We will, as our brains naturally rewire themselves into a cog-seeking identity, no longer feel the tug of what used to pass for humanity in our work, and willingly ... hell, enthusiastically ... subvert our former selves to comfortably co-exist within the machine. Our child, our mother, our holy grail.

When was the last time you read a whole book rather than the Wikipeadia summary of it? When did you last lose yourself in thought? When did your project's community last engage in a face-to-face conversation?

I have long held that projects are conversation, not scripted performances. But what if, through iteration, we imprint on the scripted performance paradigm? Then we might insist upon engineering only tiny, riskless efforts, ones than can be accomplished in a few days, and string those results together claiming that we'd done something huge, bigger than we are, profound. Did we really? Or did we merely dumb ourselves down to satisfy our notions of how we really should otta be?

Next time, I promise this time, Changed By It.

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