Technology Has Changed The Nature of Human Intelligence

Kraftwerk sang about the fusion of man and machine in the 1980s, but even they couldn’t anticipate how the Internet would change our brains

People used to have a reasonably clear idea of what intelligence is. As measured by school examinations, intelligence is primarily a matter of remembering and recalling disparate pieces of information and, for bonus points, knitting as many of these pieces as information as possible together into a pattern that can be communicated. This was the approach taken by the Chinese Mandarin schools, and it made perfect sense – until now.

It used to be that having a good memory was the most important thing. This is natural if you lived in a time of informational scarcity, as we did for most of our history. Nature didn’t offer a lot of second chances to remember things; if you didn’t remember that crocodiles were often seen in this river, or what your grandmother said about not sticking your hand in empty logs where snakes could be, you probably weren’t long for this world.

Most of the time none of us had any idea what the fuck was going on. Only during the last 5% of the human experience has anyone managed to get anything written down, and even then mass literacy has only been a thing for a hundred years or so, and even then only in wealthy industrialised countries. The concept of being overwhelmed by knowledge was impossible outside of the most rigorous monastic setting.

The Internet has turned this entire equation on its head. It is like a gigantic non-corporeal memory comprising the sum total of human knowledge, never further than a few clicks away. No-one really needs to memorise everything anymore, when they could spend that same precious study time learning to understand the fundamentals of their discipline better.

During most of the time that people have been students, it used to be that you could open your skull and allow it to be filled. Anyone taking the time to speak to you probably had your best interests in mind, and so an atmosphere of high trust existed, and students could be more receptive.

Now, the most important thing is being able to discern truth from bullshit. On the Internet, people are lining up to shovel shit into your head. Not only are there the advertisers who have been a plague on mass media since the 1950s, but there are government propagandists – both foreign and “your own” government, religionists with a new audience, corporate intelligence agents, social justice warriors and anyone else with a drum to beat.

So you have to be more discriminating. After all, there’s no point in being open minded when you’re continually exposed to things like Flat Earth, which really only makes a person more stupid the more they think about it.

The more lies and propaganda there are around, the more intelligence becomes about being able to quickly and cleanly distinguish lies from truth, and to avoid logical errors like the balance fallacy, in which a person gives credence to a false position merely because a lot of people are bleating about it.

Intelligence is now about figuring out when you’re being lied to. Can you tell truth from bullshit when it comes to vaccine claims, for example? How do you know? How do you really know?

Now more than ever, what distinguishes the smart from the slow is how to accurately grade the reliability of the information that comes into their awareness and not simply accept it because the television says so and not simply dismiss it because the Government says so. Now it’s all about the metainformation – the information about the information – which gives us a second dimension by which to measure knowledge.

This will lead to an evolutionary process in which people who adapt to the new paradigm of information being abundant and unreliable, instead of rare and reliable, will outcompete those in the old paradigm of mindlessly memorising things.


Vince McLeod is the author of the cyberpunk novel The Verity Key, a story based on his psychological research into whether it’s possible for devices to control people’s thoughts and actions by satellite.

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