Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Is google changing the way we think?

This post was triggered by two separate stimuli: first, seeing a demonstration of one of google's development projects on machine translation, and secondly, reading Is Google making us stupid?, an article by Nicholas Carr published in the Atlantic a couple of years ago.

The notion that google seems close to being able to provide simultaneous translation between dozens of different languages is impressive enough, but the thouht that this is achieved entirely through processing power and straightforward statistical analysis of the way words occur in different language texts available to google search engines, is really stunning, at least to me. It was demonstrated on Hans Rosling's programme for the BBC on the importance of statistical data in the modern world. He texted deliberately obscure messages in Swedish to the google researcher in California, who produced more or less simultaneous translations (as far as we could see), that were largely accurate. Rosling tried to confuse the programme by using phrases such as 'bisexual bishop', but the programme was not fooled.

Carr's article is one of dozens of publications over the past few years pointing out what seems to me obvious: we are being changed by digital technology. In fact this type of article is implying two main questions: is digital technology changing us in any way, and if it is, is this a good or a bad thing? These articles argue, with more or less evidence and analysis, that we are being changed, but the vast majority I have seen, while strongly implying that this is a bad thing, don't provide evidence for this assertion.

It seems to me that the use of any tool over a long period will have the effect of changing the user, both physically and mentally. When I played tennis from morning till night as a teenager, my right forearm became much larger than my left. When I more or less gave up playing, in my thirties, they gradually returned to being the same size. Furthermore I think it is clear from all sorts of scientific research, as well as from common sense, that our brains get 'patterned' to a greater or lesser extent, by our activities - craft workers develop tacit skills and knowledge through using a small selection of tools over and over again on the same materials. If large numbers of people use particular tools this will quite naturally also begin to have an effect on the culture and organisation of the society they inhabit. The introduction of the printing press had an incalculably complex effect on the social and political history of Europe in the C15th, starting with its effect on individuals and local groups. Similarly, though perhaps much more quickly, we must expect the same process to operate with digital technology.

We need to remind ourselves that these processes are not evolutionary ones, in the technical sense of Darwin's theory, as far as we are able to see; this is because the time scales involved are too small for genetic mutations which might confer advantage in a digital world, to be observed as having done so. That would require thousands of years for the human species as I understand the theory of evolution.

So, technological changes and the use of new tools do bring about physical and cognitive changes in individuals and groups. If widespread enough, these can bring about observable changes in society and culture. But change is not necessarily a bad thing: few would now suggest that the printing press and books had negative effects on people and societies (though some people certainly warned about them at the time - they were afraid that people's capacity to memorise would be lost if everything was written down - this sounds uncannily similar to the kind of worry Carr has about the digital world). The question of whether such changes are positive or not is not a scientific one for the most part, it is a moral and political one. The question Carr needs to ask explicitly, and the one such articles should really be aiming to answer, is whether a digital world is a better world, and why.

Instantaneous machine translation would be a morally useful tool in my view because it would allow for easy verbal communication between any people in the world without the elimination or reduction of the vast range and diversity of different languages, each of which, in my opinion, embodies a particular view of reality and of moral issues: this variety, just like biological diversity, is actually a survival mechanism - we need it to remain human.