The future of knowledge

by Sarah Firisen

This morning I rode an Uber to JFK from my apartment in Queens. I do this regularly and normally don’t worry too much about it, but this morning, there was just something about the driver that concerned me, though I couldn’t put my finger on what. But every time his, very loud, GPS gave him a direction, in a language I couldn’t pin down, I just had this sense that he truly had no idea where he was going. And in case you’re not familiar with NYC, if you drive a car for a living, you’ve probably driven from the city to JFK more than a few times and do know where you’re going. Anyway, we arrived at JFK, I reminded him I wanted terminal 2 and I thought, “I guess my worries were for nothing”. And almost as soon as I thought that, he missed the sign for terminal 2. I mean, I guess it can happen, but it’s never happened to me before in all my many years of flying out of that airport. The signs don’t exactly creep up on you. I tell him he’s missed it; we start on a loop back around the airport and I say, “the green sign’s for terminal 2”, then he misses it again. And it turns out, the reason he kept missing it was because his GPS was telling him something contrary. I pointed out to him that I hadn’t put terminal 2 in Uber, so how would its GPS know that? The third time around the airport, I rather lost my temper and told him to stop listening to his phone and to listen to me. And third time lucky, we reached terminal 2.

On reflection, apart from thinking that maybe he couldn’t read and definitely didn’t speak great English, it occurred to me that a large part of the problem was his total and utter faith in his technology, over his own eyes and ears (as I kept yelling, “not that way!!!!”). Of course, he’s not alone.

We can now find out almost any piece of knowledge (and any piece of crap) on the Internet. When I moved out of my apartment this weekend, I threw away my store of gadget manuals, secure in the knowledge that I can always find a digital version online. Indeed, about 7 years ago, I was staying in a house at the beach in Maine, and we couldn’t figure out how to use the washing machine, I Googled the product number and found the manual. Don’t know how to change my Apple Watch band, there’s a YouTube video for that. How to clean a stainless-steel pot, there’s a Facebook post for that. Do we really need to remember or know anything these days? When I was a child and the UK only had 3 tv stations, it was a common occurrence for us to be watching one of them and have my grandmother call to ask my mother, “who’s that actor in this film?”. Why would anyone bother to make that call now? And who has a only three TV channels and a landline?

Like most people, I’d be lost without my Smartphone, but one of the most useful features for me is my calendar where I regularly put in reminders to myself for very mundane future activities which I know I’ll otherwise forget. My memory is just terrible these days and these digital nudges are a lifesaver, but I also sometimes worry that it makes my memory even worse to not have to exercise it to even remember my children’s phone numbers. In fact, the only phone numbers I know are mine, my ex-husband’s (because he’s had it for so many years) and my uncle’s (because he’s had it most of my life). I just about remember the first three digits of my boyfriend’s, but after that I’m lost. I’ve written before about our loss of skills thanks to technology, but what about our loss of knowledge.

And of course, it’s not just that we’re not bothering to learn and remember things because we can just Google them. If we were at least to always find facts when we Google, it would be bad enough. But we’re not. From our Fake-Newser-in-Chief on downwards, there is a proliferation of “alternative facts” and even a more common acceptance of the mutability of “facts”. I’m not going to write a treatise on Epistemology, but whatever your philosophical views on knowledge, the sheer abundance of falsity on the Internet and the readiness of some people to promote it and others to believe it, should be worrying.

We rightly worry about bias in AI, about what computers will do as they become more and more intelligent, about a possible future where 2001’s HAL is a reality. Do we spend enough time worrying about what technology has done to our brains? I know we worry about children’s brains and screen time, and having recently sat through yet another dinner in a restaurant where a baby was pacified by having an iPad put in front of him, we should be worried. But what about my brain? Will we find it increasingly unnecessary to learn things? And as we turn to technology for the answers, how will be ensure that the “knowledge” we’re finding there is reliable and accurate?

I mainly use Alexa to find out what the weather is. Now that I have a new apartment with a terrace and could just walk outside to find out, will I? Nah, I’ll probably still ask Alexa. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so tough on my Uber driver after all.