Monday, December 20, 2010

Virtually Wise

In the age of the Kindle and its clones, a personal library is an anachronism. Amazon offers 750,000 titles on its virtual bookshelves, and Google eBooks already has scanned some 15 million books, newspapers, and magazines into its records. A wafer-thin electronic pad costing less than $200 can access online not only more books than are in my personal library, but a couple orders of magnitude more than are in the county library. I started filling my wooden bookshelves long before there was an alternative to paper-and-ink, however, and I couldn’t afford 750,000 books. I own merely a few thousand. This isn’t enough to impress anyone greatly, but visitors to my house nonetheless sometimes ask, “So, have you read all these books?”

My response is always, “Yes. I should be a lot smarter than I am, shouldn’t I?”

This is meant as a joke, but actually it is true. The odd bits of information that have stuck with me from all those pages probably wouldn’t see me through Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Oh, I probably can pick out a line by Yeats from four possible answers, and I know who Basil the Bulgar Slayer was (beyond just some guy who slew Bulgars), but how likely is it anyone will ask those questions? I might well miss the Keats question and I’d have to look up who succeeded Basil.

Reading whole books, solid or virtual, is an old-fashioned way of acquiring information, and one that is fading. Nearly anything we need to know is a few clicks away on our computer screen or iPhone, so why try to pre-stuff our heads with data? Any D student with a laptop can answer in seconds obscure questions that stump his unaided professor.

Is it fair to say these new intellectual capabilities make us smarter? Wiser? Or are we actually getting dimmer as our microchips take over?

I once mentioned to a friend that pocket calculators had diminished basic math skills. I gave as an example the extraction of square roots, which we learn to do in grammar school (at least I assume this is still taught in grammar school). Few adults remember how to do it; the omnipresence of calculators makes it unnecessary. My friend answered, “If I saw an employee trying to extract a square root by hand, I’d fire him.” He had a point. In the modern world this skill is about as useful as flint knapping.

Is that D student with his laptop really smarter than his professor? Maybe, if you consider the student and his computer together as a unit. Still, I can’t help feeling uneasy about this answer.

If there is virtual intelligence, can there also be virtual wisdom? I suppose we first need to define wisdom before we can answer that question. Fortunately, at the University of Chicago there is in progress a $2,000,000 four-year project called Defining Wisdom. I’ll not comment on how wise a use of $2,000,000 that may be. The University of Chicago has competition, too. At Butler University in Indiana, the computer scientist Ankur Gupta takes a quantitative approach. "The goal is to try to use data compression as a mathematical measure of wisdom," he says. With or without a Kindle, I never would have thought of that.


  1. Well you can always define Wisdom using the old D&D method. Intelligence scores denoted how much knowledge your character had in their possession. I'm guessing this included your spellbooks, because your wizards always had high Intelligence scores.

    Wisdom was measured as the ability to use the knowledge they had. So you could have a character who was a know it all, but had a low wisdom score and would end up doing foolish things. Oddly enough the cleric characters had the highest wisdom scores.

    And now that I've geeked out all over your blog, I'll take my 20 sided dice and roll.

  2. Perhaps I'm wrong (always a strong possibility), but, with all due respect to the U of C and Doc Gupta, the D&D definition is likely as useful as anything they devise will be.