How to Deal with Complexity

Is google making us stupid? No. We keep hearing the argument that relying on technology makes us less smart somehow. Plato was probably the first person to make this argument. His target? Writing – his argument was:

So, too, with written words: you might think they spoke as though they made sense, but if you ask them anything about what they are saying, if you wish an explanation, they go on telling you the same thing, over and over forever. Once a thing is put in writing, it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend; it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid.

Plato’s suggestion was that we learned best through discourse, and that writing would, well, make us stupid. I’m clearly unqualified to call Plato dumb, but it’s a dumb argument. Here’s the latest version from Steven DeMaio:

Studies have shown that using our memory improves reasoning and creativity. Yet, because of our increased reliance on technology, few of us can even recall phone numbers or appointments anymore. Try using your memory more often by dialing numbers by hand or picturing your weekly calendar in your mind.

This line of argument drives me up the wall. You can see the faulty assumption here – that if we’re not remembering phone numbers, then we’re not using our memory. It’s as though we have one part of brain that is set aside only for remembering phone numbers, and if we’re not memorising phone numbers,then we’re not using that part of our brain. That’s clearly not true. The problem is not whether we’re using our memories or not, the problem is in allocating our attention and memory correctly.

DeMaio actually gets to this point in the longer version of the article – he talks about the benefits of memorising the names of all of his students. I agree that this is a very good use of memory. But there’s a lot of stuff that I’m better off leaving to my distributed memory, much of which is aided by technology. This is how we are able to deal with the rapidly increasing amount of information that we are faced with these days (beautifully documented and discussed in this post by Venessa Miemis).

The key to dealing with all of this information is to outsource as much of the aggregating as you possibly can. My phone can remember phone numbers. Wikipedia can remember when the Magna Carta was signed. My twitter network can remember all the great stuff going on at the Open Innovation Summit right now in Orlando. All I need to know is how to access the information (and how to back it up).

Doing that lets me concentrate on the things that I’m good at – filtering and connecting. We don’t get new ideas by memorising. We get new ideas by making new connections – figuring out what information is important, and synthesising it. One of the reasons that information is increasing exponentially is that we’re getting better at processing it. This is due to the extra brain time that we’re able to free up by outsourcing memorising.

By letting us focus our concentration on making new connections, technology that remembers for us makes us smarter.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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16 thoughts on “How to Deal with Complexity

  1. Tim,

    You nailed it. Such a great post outlining the notion that as complexity increases, so does the mechanism to deal with it.

    In this case, outsourcing and aggregating certain types of information ‘in the cloud’ leaves more space in our heads to think about things that are more important – like understanding what the hell’s going on so we can adapt to it and stay on the cutting edge of our industries.

    No one who’s interest is being competitive and staying relevant needs to know when the Magna Carta was signed.

    On a separate note, thank you for the Plato quote. I actually find his sentiment very interesting. I think that there is something to be said about the limitations that the written word puts on language. An idea can be reworded, paraphrased, and restated on paper until it loses any comparison to the original meaning. Spoken language has a purity that can’t be altered, because once it’s said, it’s gone – it can’t be altered.

    Of course, in Plato’s time there wasn’t audio or video recording, so the quote isn’t quite as applicable today.

    But I understand what he says, and I think we’ll see a trend to confirm his thoughts. He saw a purity in spoken language, and I think there’s something about the visual that lives in that space too. To follow with the ‘picture worth a thousand words’ mantra, there’s something about ‘seeing’ an idea that help you just ‘get it’ way better than reading an explanation of it.

    This will be the future of the web and digital communication, which we’re already starting to see with augmented reality and virtual worlds. Where information can be conveyed visually, it will be. It’s just viral.

    For those of us that blog, I think those that create visual versions of their posts (a slideshare, a prezi, or a youtube video) as an alternative method of sharing their ideas will become more influential and trusted than those who don’t. The visual will be one of those STEM compression forces, increasing efficiency by decreasing the amount of time it takes to get the messages across. you

    can transmit an idea faster by showing than by making them read a post, after all.

    thanks tim, you gave me a bunch of new things to think about.

    @venessamiemis

  2. I think it is easy to see the source of this (mis)understanding of what mnemoic devices and other technologies serve.
    On the, let’s say, “traditional” view, the mind is enclosed in your head, and thus when you give up some of the functions of the mind in your head, your head becomes less and less useful.
    Now, some argue for an “extended” view of mind, wherein the mind goes beyond what is enclosed in your head and includes such external devices as calculators, iphones and whatnot. Some argue that the key behind extended mindedness is the ability to communicate (and thus, the necessity of language) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_Mind
    This extended mind hypothesis can also be useful in the context of business networks and explains why we need to engaged in more communication with external world; the intelligence of the firm is not enclosed in its organisational boundaries: http://www.whartonsp.com/store/product.aspx?isbn=0137024762

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments Venessa & Marco!

    I ran across the Plato quote while reading A Better Pencil by Dennis Baron – a fascinating book about communication technologies over time. I’ll write more about it when I’m done with it. There’s an interview with him about some of these ideas here:

    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/09/18/barron

    I think you’re right about visual/spoken word communication – there are definite advantages to that as a way to spread ideas (although, recorded speech has many of the same problems as written speech from the perspective of Plato’s…).

    With regard to the link, and Marco’s ideas, a lot of that is picked up by Joel Garreau in his book Radical Evolution, another worthwhile read.

  4. Tim,

    I generally agree with your premise. A fun, if light, take on the same subject comes from Everything Bad Is For You. The author demonstrates our increasing ability to process from complexity by looking at, among other things, TV shows. His flow-chart analysis of an episode of Dallas from the 80s, when compared with a similar one from a an episode of 24, demonstrates our rapidly increasing ability to synthesize multiple interconnecting narratives. It also explains why my beloved Dallas now seems interminably slow.

    But I am skeptical of when and how we bypass memorization. Your phone number example is spot on, of course, but in teaching I often see too much high-level abstract reasoning presented to kids who can’t handle it. One ritzy private school taught an intellectually elegant, abstract model of both algebra and trigonometry. It was self-evident that their scores on rote achievement tests would suffer, but the assumption was that their better theoretical understanding would more than compensate. After ten years, I can confidently assert that the program failed on both levels.

    Anyway, thanks for the stimulating commentary.

  5. Thanks for the feedback Peter! The TV flow charts in EGIBFY are great – I quite like Johnson’s work.

    I don’t think I was trying to say that we should bypass memorization completely. The point I was trying to get at is that we should choose what we spend our personal cycles on since there is plenty that we don’t have to memorize ourselves.

    That said, this is an area that can clearly be improved with practice and discipline (hence, your job!).

  6. ‘One of [Albert] Einstein’s colleagues asked him for his telephone number one day. Einstein reached for a telephone directory and looked it up. “You don’t remember your own number?” the man asked, startled.

    “No,” Einstein answered. “Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?”

    In fact, Einstein claimed never to memorize anything which could be looked up in less than two minutes.’

    Reference: http://oaks.nvg.org/sa5ra17.html