Monday, July 21, 2014

Brain extensions

So I got a new smart phone a few weeks back, and haven't really had a chance to play with it and grow into it much.  One thing I'm happy to have begun doing is merging the address books of a couple of gmail accounts I have.  I could explain why I have two, but it would be oh so boring.

And it is good that Google and the interweb and even the phone itself (is it Android, or the phone's instantiation of it?  I don't know and don't care) have tools in there to help me with this process. But the synch up hasn't been perfect and I've delayed fixing it till I took my exam, which is done.  And I could tell you about that, but that would be even more boring.

So today I'm reading in the paper and see there's a start-up called Humin as well as others -- including so Google platform -- that are trying to take this to the next level and integrate all of our social networks and think ahead of us.  So, do things like keep track of who I know across my address book, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. in a given area, and when I'm there (say, I'm in Boston) give me a heads up and say "why don't you call Jimmy and Johnny?"  Which is interesting.  The kind of feature I've thought about myself.

But to me it raises and interesting question:  when we automate these processes, mnemonic associations, ways of navigating in the world, and we grow dependent on our devices, do the old habits we had before we had the devices atrophy, and does that make us less able to think for ourselves?  Or does it free our minds up to do other work?

Certainly, I can tell you that the more I've grown dependent on navigation devices on my phone or on my dashboard, the less I pay attention to learning and remembering where I'm going.  After I graduated from college, I began developing a science of what I called at the time "semi-idiotics", the science of road signs and road signifieds.  I was kind of joking, but kind of not.  I in fact became rather adept at getting around, and developed a light science.  So, for example, when driving in the country, a road named after a man-made thing "Merritt Mill Road" or "Fayetteville Road" is likely to be a through road, while one named after a natural thing "Springbrook Road" or "Green Meadow Drive" is more likely to be lead into a crazy subdivision which will get me nowhere.

I also know that I'm less good at remembering people's names and the names of their kids now than I once was. Could just be aging.

We know there are natural constraints on what we can hold in memory. The Dunbar Number tells us that the number of people anyone can know reasonably well at any point in time is about 150.  Research.  David Laibson of Harvard did research which shows that people's ability to make financial decisions declines from somewhere around the age of 53.  And so on.

So, how much does it behoove us to extend our cognitive capacity using tools like social networks, CRM platforms, and new layers we will see continue to built on them over time?  And how much will it hurt us, make us lazy? 

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