Presence and Productivity

Jamais Cascio had an essay in The Atlantic a few years ago that I only just found (see Get Smarter) on the use of new technologies to boost our intelligence. The essay is mostly a response to the ideas posed by an earlier essay by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid, i.e., is the constant onslaught of information that we experience everyday making it impossible to concentrate on and think deeply about one particular task. Cascio challenges the idea that we become stupider when we assign more of our mental ability to technological assistance and makes the case that, to the contrary, we are increasing our ‘fluid intelligence’, “the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge.”

Most people don’t realize that this process is already under way. In fact, it’s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It’s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity. So far, these augmentations have largely been outside of our bodies, but they’re very much part of who we are today: they’re physically separate from us, but we and they are becoming cognitively inseparable. And advances over the next few decades, driven by breakthroughs in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, will make today’s technologies seem primitive. The nascent jargon of the field describes this as “ intelligence augmentation.” I prefer to think of it as “You+.”

As off-putting as this may sound to some people, he points out that we take for granted many ways that technology (be it physical objects or simply just tactics and techniques) already permeate our lives and enable us to do things humans didn’t used to be able to do. What’s more, technology has already been enhancing our mental abilities for the last several centuries.

Of course, we’ve been augmenting our ability to think for millennia. When we developed written language, we significantly increased our functional memory and our ability to share insights and knowledge across time and space. The same thing happened with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio. The rise of urbanization allowed a fraction of the populace to focus on more-cerebral tasks—a fraction that grew inexorably as more-complex economic and social practices demanded more knowledge work, and industrial technology reduced the demand for manual labor. And caffeine and nicotine, of course, are both classic cognitive-enhancement drugs, primitive though they may be.

The future, as he sees it, involves more ‘intelligence augmentation’ and a greater push towards tools for increased productivity (just consider the levels of caffeine consumed in the US).

Such a future would bear little resemblance to Brave New World or similar narcomantic nightmares; we may fear the idea of a population kept doped and placated, but we’re more likely to see a populace stuck in overdrive, searching out the last bits of competitive advantage, business insight, and radical innovation. No small amount of that innovation would be directed toward inventing the next, more powerful cognitive-enhancement technology.

This stands in contrast to the idea of ‘presence over productivity’, a theme that Maria Popova at BrainPickings touches on from time to time.

There’s an unshakable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

There is certainly a balance that must be struck between getting things done, which involves a lot of abstract thinking and planning for the future, and being aware of our surroundings and our lives in the present moment. Various people swing towards one side or the other (and as Popova points out, different people have different ways of being ‘present’). For my part, I’m still trying to find the right proportion of each. It’s a work in progress.


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