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Alien Scientist 51: Google-Brained Aliens

Stephen Marshall, a former resident of Tsukuba, has been writing Alien Scientist articles for the Alien Times since 2001. Even though he no longer lives in Tsukuba, he is still a regular contributor to the magazine. Here is his latest intergalactic report.

Alien ScientistIn a recent article in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr asks “Is Google Making us Stupid?”. His point is that the ubiquity of information on the internet, and its instant accessibility through search engines such as Google, could be changing the way we think. Instead of holding information in our heads, we rely on accessing someone else’s data banks. As our environment becomes more information-rich, we are in danger of becoming individually more intellectually impoverished.

The danger that new information technology could make us ‘stupid’ is not, of course, new. As Carr points out, Socrates warned that writing could become a lazy substitute for brainpower, giving people ‘the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom’; and the invention of printing brought further angst that the availability of books would demean scholarship and encourage lazy minds.

Ironically, today’s scholars – trained in harnessing the intellectual power of the written word – are now more likely to be worried that today’s internet generation will have no use for books, but make do with any old soundbite, blog or podcast as sources of knowledge about the world.

The internet does not just impact on the stockpiling of knowledge, but how we access it. We are now used to being able to think of any keyword or phrase and instantly scan the entire world-wide web for its occurrence, in a way that we can’t do for print-bound texts. Even book-reared scholars may begin to miss the facility to skip forward through a printed book to find the next keyword, or leap directly from a citation to the document it refers to. Perhaps inevitably, the format of the information affects how we use it. The medium not only becomes inextricable with the message, but even moulds the brains of those who send and receive it.

Humans are not genetically hard-wired to handle text in the way we are to handle speech. So we have to learn to read and write, in a way that affects how we think. Those who learn writing via ideograms such as kanji characters develop a different way of processing language – manipulating visual stimuli and memory – from those who are brought up with words composed of letters of the alphabet. So it would not be surprising if the Google generation, who learn by pointing and clicking, will think and use information differently from those weaned on turning paper pages.

Indeed, we could imagine some alien species for whom net-linked thinking was their natural intellectual environment. We can imagine an alien species who did not grow up with the alien equivalents of paper and books, but whose intelligence evolved in the context of a complex external ‘information ecosystem.’ Such a species would not be so reliant on having their own on-board repository of knowledge; they would be not so much book-brained as Google-brained organisms.

If such aliens went to explore beyond their own world, they would need to bring a portable supply of information with them – just as human astronauts have to carry their own oxygen, normally freely available as part of the environment, when venturing beyond Earth.

When arriving on Earth, the aliens would naturally seek to plug into the local planetary information ecosystem as soon as possible. And where better to start than an internet café? We can imagine the itinerant alien never so at home once ensconced at the keyboard, earphones on and tentacles discreetly tapping, logging in with an anonymously Earthling-style username and password.

Once online, they might not bother consulting the great reference libraries, whose information is still predominately held in the form of ink-encrusted pulp-sheets. Rather, the world-wide web would be as good a place as any, to make quick gains in terms of finding what was going on.

A few clips of YouTube may well tell them more about human life and culture, in a limited time, than the equivalent time invested in ploughing through the works of Plato or Shakespeare. Famously, the Pioneer spacecraft, in anticipation of possible discovery by extraterrestrials, included Mozart as an interstellar exemplar of human taste in music. But maybe our alien researchers would find Earthlings more typically represented in video-clips of dogs howling and teenagers singing karaoke in their bedrooms.

This does not mean anyone is smarter or more ‘stupid’ for accessing information this way. A Google-brained alien – or human – would naturally make for a good explorer of an unknown terrain, quick-wittedly skipping from one outcrop of knowledge to another, with an intellectual agility that even Socrates might have appreciated.