First published June 7, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” — Herbert Simon
Last week, I explored the dark recesses of the hyper-secret Google X project. Two X Projects in particular seem poised to change our world in very fundamental ways: Google’s Project Glass and the “Web of Things.”
Let’s start with Project Glass. In a video entitled “One Day…,” the future seen through the rose-colored hue of Google Glasses seems utopian, to say the least. In the video, we step into the starring role, strolling through our lives while our connected Google Glasses feed us a steady stream of information and communication — a real-time connection between our physical world and the virtual one.
In theory, this seems amazing. Who wouldn’t want to have the world’s sum total of information available instantly, just a flick of the eye away?
Couple this with the “Web of Things,” another project said to be in the Google X portfolio. In the Web of Things, everything is connected digitally. Wearable technology, smart appliances, instantly findable objects — our world becomes a completely inventoried, categorized and communicative environment.
Information architecture expert Peter Morville explored this in his book “Ambient Findability.” But he cautions that perhaps things may not be as rosy as you might think after drinking the Google X Kool-Aid. This excerpt is from a post he wrote on Ambient Findability: “As information becomes increasingly disembodied and pervasive, we run the risk of losing our sense of wonder at the richness of human communication.”
And this brings us back to the Herbert Simon quote — knowing and thinking are not the same thing. Our brains were not built on the assumption that all the information we need is instantly accessible. And, if that does become the case through advances in technology, it’s not at all clear what the impact on our ability to think might be. Nicholas Carr, for one, believes that the Internet may have the long-term effect of actually making us less intelligent. And there’s empirical evidence he might be right.
In his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,”Noble laureate Daniel Kahneman says that while we have the ability to make intuitive decisions in milliseconds (Malcolm Gladwell explored this in “Blink”), humans also have a nasty habit of using these “fast” mental shortcuts too often, relying on gut calls that are often wrong (or, at the very least, biased) when we should be using the more effortful “slow” and rational capabilities that tend to live in the frontal part of our brain. We rely on beliefs, instincts and habits, at the expense of thinking. Call it informational instant gratification.
Kahneman recounts a seminal study in psychology, where four-year-old children were given a choice: they could have one Oreo immediately, or wait 15 minutes (in a room with the offered Oreo in front of them, with no other distractions) and have two Oreos. About half of the children managed to wait the 15 minutes. But it was the follow-up study, where the researchers followed what happened to the children 10 to 15 years later, that yielded the fascinating finding:
“A large gap had opened between those who had resisted temptation and those who had not. The resisters had higher measures of executive control in cognitive tasks, and especially the ability to reallocate their attention effectively. As young adults, they were less likely to take drugs. A significant difference in intellectual aptitude emerged: the children who had shown more self-control as four year olds had substantially higher scores on tests of intelligence.”
If this is true for Oreos, might it also be true for information? If we become a society that expects to have all things at our fingertips, will we lose the “executive control” required to actually think about things? Wouldn’t it be ironic if Google, in fulfilling its mission to “organize the world’s information” inadvertently transgressed against its other mission, “don’t be evil,” by making us all attention-deficit, intellectual-diminished, morally bankrupt dough heads?