Culture, Cognition by Adam on 2007-08-20 02:52

In the Middle Ages, “intelligence” meant memory. Knowledge was scarce, owing to the difficulty of transmitting and storing it (very few were literate, and the printing press did not exist). So anyone who could store a lot of information in their heads tended to excel at cognitive tasks.

In the era of Google Is My Brain, technology does our remembering for us. (This was true, though somewhat less so, with printed books and widespread literacy in the past century or two.) No one is impressed by a good memory, because it’s essentially a useless skill. In fact our culture seems to favor those who have poor memories but are smart in a more modern modern way - e.g. the absent-minded professor.

In modern times, what we mean by “intelligence” is reflected in the IQ test: analysis, application of previously-gained knowledge to current situations, and fast learning. Those who score well on IQ tests tend to thrive in the modern world.

Memory was replaced by technology: so why not the skills we currently call “intelligence”? This may not happen immediately, but it seems possible or even likely that such technology will exist in the coming decades or centuries. If technology can analyze, apply knowledge, or learn in a manner that is better or faster than humans, we’ll stop caring about our own innate ability to do so.

What will be the most valuable mental skill when that happens? Leadership and charisma? Empathy? Creativity? Perhaps it will be something we don’t even have a word yet, because it’s a skill that will only make sense in tandem with a certain technology. (For example: googling is an incredibly useful skill today, but would have been purposeless prior to search engines.)

I find it amusing to speculate on what such a world would be like, and on what it would mean if most of the mental facilities I’ve cultivated for so many years were no longer valuable.

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