We Still Need Information Stored in Our Heads Not ‘in the Cloud’

Computer are great for information that won't change, but a brain is better at connecting facts with other facts and acquiring layers of meaning

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Is technology making us stupid — or smarter than we’ve ever been? Author Nicholas Carr memorably made the case for the former in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. This fall we’ll have a rejoinder of sorts from writer Clive Thompson, with his book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

My own take: technology can make us smarter or more stupid, and we need to develop a set of principles to guide our everyday behavior and make sure that tech is improving and not impeding our mental processes. One of the big questions being debated today is, What kind of information do we need to have stored in our heads, and what kind can we leave “in the cloud,” to be accessed as necessary?

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In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked a group of seventh-graders to read a website full of information about the Pacific Northwest tree octopus, or Octopus paxarbolis. The Web page described the creature’s mating rituals, preferred diet and leafy habitat in precise detail. Applying an analytical model they’d learned, the students evaluated the trustworthiness of the site and the information it offered.

Their judgment? The tree octopus was legit. All but one of the pupils rated the website as “very credible.” The headline of the university’s press release read, “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” and it quoted Don Leu, professor of education at the University of Connecticut and co-director of its New Literacies Research Lab, lamenting that classroom instruction in online reading is “woefully lacking.”

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There’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s not just that the arboreal octopus is, of course, a fiction, presented by Leu and his colleagues to probe their subjects’ Internet savvy. The other fable here is the notion that the main thing these kids need — what all our kids really need — is to learn online skills in school. It would seem clear that what Leu’s seventh-graders really require is knowledge: some basic familiarity with the biology of sea-dwelling creatures that would have tipped them off that the website was a whopper (say, when it explained that the tree octopus’s natural predator is the sasquatch).

But that’s not how an increasingly powerful faction within education sees the matter. They are the champions of “new literacies” — or “21st century skills” or “digital literacy” or a number of other faddish-sounding concepts. In their view, skills trump knowledge, developing “literacies” is more important than learning mere content, and all facts are now Google-able and therefore unworthy of committing to memory. But even the most sophisticated digital-literacy skills won’t help students and workers navigate the world if they don’t have a broad base of knowledge about how the world actually operates. “When we fill our classrooms with technology and emphasize these new ‘literacies,’ we feel like we’re reinventing schools to be more relevant,” says Robert Pondiscio, executive director of the nonprofit organization CitizenshipFirst (and a former fifth-grade teacher). “But if you focus on the delivery mechanism and not the content, you’re doing kids a disservice.”

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Indeed, evidence from cognitive science challenges the notion that skills can exist independent of factual knowledge. Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is a leading expert on how students learn. “Data from the last thirty years leads to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not only because you need something to think about,” Willingham has written. “The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

In other words, just because you can Google the date of Black Tuesday doesn’t mean you understand why the Great Depression happened or how it compares to our recent economic slump. There is no doubt that the students of today, and the workers of tomorrow, will need to innovate, collaborate and evaluate, to name three of the “21st century skills” so dear to digital-literacy enthusiasts. But such skills can’t be separated from the knowledge that gives rise to them. To innovate, you have to know what came before. To collaborate, you have to contribute knowledge to the joint venture. And to evaluate, you have to compare new information against knowledge you’ve already mastered.

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So here’s a principle for thinking in a digital world, in two parts:

First, acquire a base of fact knowledge in any domain in which you want to perform well
This base supplies the essential foundation for building skills, and it can’t be outsourced to a search engine.

Second, take advantage of computers’ invariant memory and also the brain’s elaborative memory
Computers are great when you want to store information that shouldn’t change — say, the date and time of that appointment next week. A computer (unlike your brain, or mine) won’t misremember the time of the appointment as 3 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. But brains are the superior choice when you want information to change, in interesting and useful ways: to connect up with other facts and ideas, to acquire successive layers of meaning, to steep for a while in your accumulated knowledge and experience and so produce a richer mental brew.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Paul

3 comments
prioripete
prioripete

I've been trying to inform some readers about this in the form of Singular or Linear Materialism also promoted by Artificial Intelligence and Pure Logic.  It misleads reason and deviate conclusive findings away from social objectivism, missing out the layers of social being and soul. And the 'hollow' or 'thinning' the material deviates humanity down the spiral of deterioration.  

KountyKobbler
KountyKobbler

to find stuff on the cloud or in your computer you must have an original idea   and base your retrieval of data  on  that memory Human relational data is not only language  of words symbols and calculations  its also  emotions  and  How something is perceived be it straight forward literal  word for word meaning  or  said sarcastically which is exactly the opposed view   of how it would be if defined literally that is one way that  Human computer or mind beats computer in being accurate to the problem involved.. 

mr.jargyi@gmail.com
mr.jargyi@gmail.com

Dear Times Magazine,

We hereby protest and condemn your unfounded and baseless article accusing the Monk U Wirathu as a terrorist.

Firstly, we refer you to the incident in Meikhtila where communal violence broke out. During that time U Wirathu was one of those who were extending a helping hand to Muslim communities with loving kindness. Is this what you call terrorism?

Now that you are accusing U Wirathu of being a terrorist, we were amazed as to how the TIME managed to uncover his terrorist activities while we, Myanmar people living in the country, had no knowledge of such criminal and terrorist activities allegedly carried out by the holiness. Thus we object the TIME's irresponsible behavior in which your publication included baseless and unfounded stories of a person that affects his dignity and our country. If you really are incline to properly accuse him of being a terrorist, we suggest that you specifically and explicitly mention what he actually did and where and when he did such things. This should be backed by solid evidence.

If U Wirathu has not committed any acts of terrorism, then you article "The Face of Buddhist Terror" constitutes insult to the entire Buddhist communities around the world. Please be reminded that the Buddhists around the world take this as an offence and insult.

It is clearly known to the world that Buddhism is not a religion that upholds violence or terrorist culture. It is an inconsistency and irony that the Muslim which is the religion that has been involved in terrorism around the world was not regarded as "terror" but U Wirathu who has never hurt a fly was labelled as "terrorist". Given this, do you still want to claim that you are a world-class magazine that will enlighten the world? Or are you simply writing this kind of baseless and ridiculous articles for financial gains? We will be wait and see your true face! We are watching you.