Monday, October 29, 2007

It Is Not Knowledge Unless It Reaches Beyond You

The Outsourced Brain - New York Times by By DAVID BROOKS Published: October 26, 2007

Last Friday New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on the outsourcing or externalizing of human intelligence to the external digital world. One senses his willingness to accept this state of affairs is similar to, "I for one welcome our new alien masters".

"Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants — silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves."

"I’ll be in the way Amazon links purchasing Dostoyevsky to purchasing garden furniture. And when memes are spreading, and humiliation videos are shared on Facebook — I’ll be there, too."

"I am one with the external mind. Om."

What he failed to appreciate is that this has been going on for the last 6,500 years for the ubiquitous externalization of knowledge we call writing. The storytellers of oral societies have prodigious memories, for myths, but actually keeping detailed and accurate track of crops for the previous 7 years took writing. Even language, internalized as thought, is itself indirectly a form of externalization, by internally objectifying spoken language as thought so that it can be considered in past, present and future terms. More importantly, so that it can be communicated to others. It is this ability, perhaps beyond others, that has moved the human species forward. The primary tool of mass production that defines Mr. Brooks' business, the printing press, is also a means of externalizing knowledge beyond the cloistered walls of monks with quills.

A number of articles have recently reflected on the biological and social evolutionary development of human communication. The Los Angeles Times writer Karen Kaplan looks at the genetic origin of language in Did Neanderthals natter? The human forebears had a key language gene, researchers report on October 22, 2007 (requires free registration).

The Science Blog Developing Intelligence on October 16, 2007 by Chris Chathamasks asks "Why There Aren't Right-Handed Apes, Or: Handedness and The Evolution of Language" and gets in deeper to questioning the genetic, psycho-physiological and social development of language.

Corballis argues the final step was a cultural rather than evolutionary invention - early homo sapiens may have learned to uncouple speech from facial gesture so that speech was communicative on its own. Corballis notes that facial gestures still assume dominance over vocalizations among modern humans (see the McGurk effect), again suggesting our cultural heritage from gestural communication.

In summary, Corballis claims that handedness emerged only after speech, which was itself lateralized due to preexisting dominance of the left-hemisphere for communicative behaviors.

First the externalization of speech and then the internal rewiring of the brain to be lateralized to handedness.

The Los Angles Times had an article Researchers discover that irregular verbs change in a predictable manner -- just like genes and living organisms. By Denise Gellene, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer back on October 11, 2007.

Tracing the evolution of English verbs over 1,200 years -- from the Old English of "Beowulf" to the modern English of "The Princess Diaries" -- researchers have found that the majority of irregular verbs are going the way of Grendel, falling to the linguistic equivalent of natural selection.

Cognitive Daily's, Dave Munger, tracking a similar story from the New York Times tells us that the more we use a word, the less likely it is to change. According to the New York Times report frequently-used words evolve more slowly than rarely used ones. Dave Munger thought that this was understandable.

Seems reasonable. In our travels across Europe, we found that "yes" and "no" were very similar in different languages -- until we got to Greece, where their word for yes was pronounced "neh," and the word for no was "ochi." But despite anomalies such as this, overall more frequently used words tend to be more similar across Indo-European languages.

Why might this be? Mr. Munger cites one author of the study who explains,

As to how frequency of word use would affect evolution, Dr. Pagel said a possibility is that if errors are made in speaking common words, they may tend to be corrected, precisely because they are so common and so important for communication.
In other words, the fact that they were made external and subject to scrutiny in the environment decided their communicative importance thereby ensuring their survivability and that of the systems that used them.

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