February 26, 2003
Intelligence in the Information Age

An interesting read by Julian Baggini: Information Age Intelligence

[...] The idea, which has frequently been aired, is that with so much information available at the click of a mouse, what is now more important than remembering information is being able to retrieve it quickly. The person who can do the latter has access to far more information than the person who simply relies on what they remember. And so the value of being learned in the traditional sense of having retained a lot of information goes. [...]

Frand argues that for those growing up in the information age, the most natural way to deal with a problem is through trial and error, not by logical analysis. You get good at computer games by having plenty of goes, not by spending a lot of time cognising about the best strategy.

You can tell if someone has the information age mindset by seeing what they do when you give them some new device or piece of software. While the old-fashioned read the manual and follow the instructions, the children of the information age simply turn it on and start fiddling about until they figure out how it works. And you can be sure that they’ll get things working first.

The intellectual skills that the information age require therefore already look very different from the ones that we have valued in the past, even if the only changes are the two I have outlined. If we do become information retrievers rather than storers, and practitioners of trial-and-error rather than logical analysis, then our idea of what makes an intelligent person will seem to have changed enormously.

Although memory generally isn't measured as part of standardized IQ tests, a person with a good memory and a wide knowledge is certainly perceived as being more intelligent by peers.

As more and more people are "netchecking" their questions and kids are growing up not learning to be critical to their sources, Julian certainly raises interesting points, and I think it is important to highlight that the future "intelligent person" not only will be able to quickly retrieve information, but to discern trustworthy and/or comprehensive sources from the net's riff-raff:

Like Oscar Wilde’s cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, a mere retriever of information knows the facts about everything and the significance of nothing. [...]

Consider someone like the autistic savant Raymond played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man. He is able to remember virtually everything he sees or hears. But his repetition of these facts is as cold and uncomprehending as the returns on a search engine query. Less extreme are the trivia quiz enthusiasts, who know an enormous number of facts but rarely, if ever, pay any attention to their significance or importance.

So neither the memory whiz nor the adept retriever of facts from cyberspace shows any great intellectual ability unless they are able to understand and use well the information they either recall or retrieve. Whether the information is stored in the World Wide Web or in the hard drive of our brains is not the crucial issue. It’s what we can do with the information that counts.

In other words, no need to shut down Mensa just yet ;-) Read the whole article... (via Yoz Grahame)

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For a very interesting treatment of how 'wisdom' and 'intelligence' is defined, and how that has changed in recent years, particularly in terms of television, I recommend reading "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman. Its a relatively short read, and very interesting.

He surmises that our current culture, a culture bred to be more interested in 'factoids', little independent bits of information we take in and spit out so quickly, that we have largely lost sight of the connections between the factoids, which is what he considers to be true knowledge.

A retriever might know a lot of stuff, but if the linkages between the individual freefloating facts aren't there, then he only has the illusion of knowledge. The head is full, but the wisdom isn't there.

Anyway, its a great book, and it really reminded me of the topics of this article and your post.


Posted by: sam on March 5, 2003 08:39 AM
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