GET SMARTER

[ Sat. Jan. 15. 2011 ]

“Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” That may have been fine advice for the 20th century, but to survive in 2011 and beyond we need to step it up—a lot. We need to, say, embrace the concepts that many mental illnesses are just extremes of personality traits, that humans tend to accept credit for their successes but not blame for their failures, and that “wholes have properties not present in the parts,” as sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University writes on the online salon Edge (edge.org).

Christakis is one of scores of contributors to an annual exercise in which Edge, run by literary agent and author John Brockman, poses a question to scientists, technology gurus, philosophers, and other thinkers. Last year’s query was about how the Internet is changing the way we think, while 2008’s asked what the scholars had changed their mind about and why. This year’s: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Technology scholar Douglas Rushkoff nominates the concept that technologies have an “embedded bias” rather than being blank slates from which any outcome can arise. Cars have an embedded bias toward suburban sprawl; guns, an embedded bias toward killing people. By adding this concept to our cognitive toolkit, Rushkoff argues, we will have a better chance of using technologies “consciously and purposefully” and of resisting that bias. The embedded bias of the keyboardless iPad, for example, is toward passive consumption rather than active creation. To resist, get the add-on keyboard. ...