Thursday, September 29, 2005

Socrates and Google: Learning to Forget

Thought I'd share my post to the Humanist list (use of tech in
teaching and researching the humanities). The topic is needing time away from the computer, and our growing reliance on tech for memory.


[Hide Quoted Text]
> From: Steven D.Krause
> Subject: Re: 19.304 contemplation and computing
> Of course, the problem of technology and "critical thinking" (or just
> "thinking") has been a problem for thousands of years.
> [ ... Socrates on Theuth and Thamus ... ]
> Substitute "digital communication" for "letters" and I think you can
> see how these things fit together.

Thamus was right. The mnemonic powers of pre-literate (as in pre-writing) societies astounds us today. Who among us can recite a three-hour epic poem?

However, Thamus only looked at the costs, and not the benefits. For example, it's been argued that Western Civilization's success in science could not have occurred in a non-literate society, because observations need to be written down if they are to be trusted with the passing of time, and properly analyzed.

Similarly, we today enjoy amazing benefits from being able to tap into the global Googlebrain that all Web users are collectively growing through their individual accretion of factoids and comments. But I agree with those who have said that in another decade, people will feel hopelessly lost if their Web access is taken away. Lost in the sense of feeling they are no longer themselves.

It used to be only hard-charging workaholics who felt anxious without access to their email. More and more, that feeling affects everyday people; if you don't experience it, you likely know someone who does. A similar dynamic affects people's growing reliance on search engines for recalling simple facts, and the use of blogs and wikis (I like to maintain personal memory (both short-term and long-term).

> [T]hey will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing;
> they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing;

Quite true. Like Thamus, I lament that aspect. It's wonderful that the Web helps people to learn so much. At the same time, you never know if someone mailed you something useful/clever/obscure/intelligent because they are such an intelligent, well-educated, interesting person, or because they did a 30-second search on Google. And I do think my brain is learning to become lazy; either I'm just forgetting how to remember, or I subconsciously know I'll be able to look something up again in the future, and it gets thrown out.

Friday, September 23, 2005

75 Years of Incompleteness

On October 7th, we'll see the 75th anniversary of Godel's unveiling of his (first) incompleteness. I'm now reading Rebecca Goldstein's excellent "Incompleteness", which not only explains Godel's theorems in simple language, but also provides the context both of the history of mathematics at that point, and of Godel's personality.

The book raises some thoughts:

* If there were no WWI, there would be no Vienna Circle (or Schlick's Circle, as it was originally called; there were many discussion circles in post-war Vienna). The modernist movement in Vienna, attempting to rebuild all thought on clean, solid foundations, was in part a reaction to everything in past thinking habits and assumptions, habits that to some had seemed to lead to the war.

* The stark constrast between Wittgenstein's classic, tortured brand of genius, and Godel's quiet, hermetic brand. Goldstein suspects, but cannot prove, that Godel was spurred on in his work, subconsciously at least, by the idea of shutting up the arrogant Wittgenstein.

(Goldstein notes that the fact that Godel could use only mathematics to say something metamathematical, even metaphysical, is in complete opposition to what Wittgenstein maintained about the limits of sayable things in a language.)

* Wittgenstein and Russell were both aristocrats. I knew this of each of them, but never really noticed that it was true of both of them at the time they were interacting at Cambridge. I'm not sure if it means anything, or if it's just an interesting coincidence.

* When Godel unveiled his idea at a conference (Oct. 7, 1930, in Konigsberg), it went almost completely unnoticed. He spoke for perhaps 30 seconds, in a quiet, casual voice (judging by everything else in his life), and was only 24 at the time. Had not John von Neumann took interest and buttonholed him later, it might have taken years longer for Godel's theorem to take hold. (He had been sitting on the theorem since the previous year, and throughout his life his unsent letters and papers far outnumbered his actual publications.)