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TED Book Chat

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Live Chat with TED Books author Howard Rheingold today at 2pm Eastern: Can our digital tools make us smarter?

Continuing with our series of TED book chats, for the next few weeks we'll be discussing Howard Rheingold's new TED eBook, "Mind Amplifier".

Do we humans co-evolve with the tools we build? Can our tools actually make us smarter? "Mind Amplifier" explores the origins of our digital tools, and lays out a framework for harnessing them to collectively and collaboratively solve our most pressing problems.

The book is available for Kindle, Nook, and iOS devices (which have a great new custom TED Books app):

Kindle copy: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009GQXRQ8

iOS app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ted-books/id511071050?mt=8

The author will be joining us for a live Q&A November 8th at 2pm Eastern, mark your calendars!

You can also watch Howard's 2005 TEDTalk, linked below.

So, let's get things started... do our new online tools make us smarter? And if not, can we design and use them in a way that does?

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    Nov 8 2012: Love you Howard. Love you Aja. Yes totallly agree social capital as in the relationships a person can build within their community are the 'golden treasure' really. In a major disaster you either want to be visible to help others or you want other people to notice you are not 'visible' and therefore possibly need some help. When resources are scarce, the person who hoards will be attacked for the hoard. The person who demands money for their services will be attacked when others have no money. That is why balance is so important. There will always be more less wealthy people than more wealthy people but a circle is better than a pyramid every time. People need to live in peace and harmony and love and respect. The cruellest price any parent pays is the suffering of their own grandchildren. It is not as simple as good and evil. I am interested in cultural etiology. In the fall of the Roman Empire the population declined by as much as 70 percent. It is NOT meant to be about the survival of the fittest, it is about trading fairly and equitably. Slavery of any kind is abhorrent. You will note the weather is really wierd at the moment and it still feels like earthquake weather to me. The cloud cover is being burned away by the sun in the day and it is November. At night the temperature is dropping really low BUT there is no rain. (London). The north and east of the country are being battered and here it is too dry. Not sure I would want to go anywhere by sea at the moment. Everybody look after the people you love. When it gets to Christmas just remember it is about being with the people you love and not about the technology. Make sure everyone has a hot meal and company and just be thankful and have hope that things are going to pick up again in the spring.
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    Oct 25 2012: I have not read the book, just the title. As it is phrased the answer to the subtitle query has to be "no". Degrees of smartness vary from individual to individual, just like eye color. Nothing can change the genetically determined characteristics of a person. I can do things to process information more efficiently and I can work to increase my knowledge base, but I cannot make myself smarter any more than I can change my blood type. Digital tools can make users more efficient and productive, they can even make users want to exercise their brains, but they cannot make users smarter. Now I will read the book, not to become smarter, but to become more knowledgeable.
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      Oct 25 2012: while do you think there exists "smarter"?
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        Oct 25 2012: For clarification, may I re-word your question?
        Are you asking: "Why does the word 'smarter' exist?" I suspect it is, so I will answer it.
        Smart has to do with intelligence which is determined by genetics. A normal, healthy, uninjured person has a certain natural capacity for processing information. The capability of the human mind is not well-defined, but it seems certain that not everyone has the same intellicence, not everyone is equally smart. The word "smarter" is synonymous with "more biologically equipped to process information". For example: "Albert Einstein was smarter (more intelligent) than most." He was born that way.
    • Oct 28 2012: This is a link you may find interesting:

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        Oct 28 2012: Certainly the measurement of "smartness" or "IQ" is not an exact study. For any given problem there is a "smart" response which can be determined empirically. If a person demonstrates a response other than the "smart" one it really has no connection to their congenital ability to process information. Myriad reasons exist which might explain their response. A highly intelligent person will have not-so-smart moments, just as an average person can have sparks of brilliance. Savants come to mind here. Multiple Intelligence seems lke a no-brainer (no pun intended) to me. Thanks for the link!
    • Oct 29 2012: "Nothing can change the genetically determined characteristics of a person." Isn't the study of epigenetics changing the assumption that gene expression is set in stone?
      No teaching software will change a certified moron into an Einstein, but what if it could raise it 20-points, or 30-points - not just in terms of better information or more information; but what if it could inspire one's "Quest Quotient"?
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        Oct 29 2012: Improving scores on a test is proof of an improved utilization of available (congenital) capacity, not proof of increased ability. The ability was always there, it was simply not being utilized. I tell you it's like eye color or blood type. I don't know from epigenetics, or Quest Quotients.
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    Nov 8 2012: What then do you think is the best way to get people thinking about systemic effects? You mention at the beginning of your book some of humanity's most threatening inventions, like the automobile and nuclear weapons, that hadn't taken into consideration the possible drawbacks? Is it just the lessons of history that are going to teach us to predict problems outside our disciplines?
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    Nov 8 2012: Something that strikes me as a constant problem throughout this history of human-created mind-amplifying tools is that extending our thinking capabilities, and making ourselves smarter, might only be one aspect of making ourselves better. Do you think that amplifying ourselves in other ways, for example, morally, is part of the same process, or does it require something else entirely?
  • Nov 8 2012: Miguel, visualization is one of the frontiers I pointed to at the end of Mind Amplifier as a way that future tools can enhance human capabilities. In the recent US election, we saw the power of data analysis in forecasting results from polls. Only sophisticated analysts have been able to make sense of polling data in this way. But all humans have very sophisticated means for discerning visual patterns. Can digital media help bridge that interface between the masses of real-time data and the ability of individuals to make sense of it? Certainly in science, visualization is proving to be a boon to those who understand a field -- being able to visualize how proteins fold, for example.
  • Nov 8 2012: Aja, in regard to differences, I see a very significant difference in the speed with which intellectual amplification can spread. It takes a long time to teach a young human to read and write. It takes a while for literacies to spread through populations. But cell phones barely existed 20 years ago and there are now more than 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world. Moore's law and markets are diffusing powerful tools to a majority of the world's population at unprecedented speed. The acceleration of change is a double-edged sword, however, While many individuals are empowered, our social institutions are straining and sometimes breaking in an attempt to keep pace with technology-driven changes.
  • Nov 8 2012: I look forward to discussions with people who have actually read the book. I don't think debating people about the title of a book they haven't read is a fruitful use of my time.
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    Oct 29 2012: I have not read the book , and I notice that several people commenting have not read it either, so I'll add my two cents!

    NOTHING can "make us smarter", more aware, wise, insightful, intelligent, etc. etc., without effort on our part, and it depends on how we USE the tool, which has been mentioned several times on this comment thread.
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    Oct 28 2012: No. Digital tools do not make us smarter. They allow us access to more information easier than ever before. When I went to school we went to the library and researched in the stacks. After that came micro fische. Then the advent of the search engine and the average man could seem wise beyond his years.

    Is he really smarter or is he just using the tools made available to him. I can read a report on DNA and maybe even discuss DNA in a circle of friends. However, to do the lab work you must have more than the conversational knowledge ... and that kiddies is where the smarts come in.

    All the best. Bob.
  • Nov 8 2012: Thank you for intelligent questions
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    Nov 8 2012: It looks like our time is almost up! Thank you everyone for joining us, and to Howard for taking the time to answer our questions!

    To those who haven't yet read "Mind Amplifier", you can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009GQXRQ8

    You can also learn more about the author at his website: http://rheingold.com or follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hrheingold

    Thanks again everyone, and we'll see you at the next TED Book chat!
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    Nov 8 2012: Not arguing the case for religion, always want to question any belief structure first, make sure it is truly in the interest of the population and not just the ruling elite. Love and peace are only achievable in the fair allocation of resources and in case no one noticed trees and whales are getting incredibly scarce. Humans are only at the top of the evolutionary tree at the moment and we really need to watch it. Hate fracing of any kind and really worried about the increased volume of water in the oceans and it's impact on weather systems and hence food crops. Love to you all.
    Anyone notice how the Nike statue in Woolwich, U.K. looks like a whale's tail fin. Nike as in ancient greek goddess of victory by the way !!!
    • Nov 8 2012: Absolutely -- questioning any beliefs, including the belief in science as the arbiter of knowledge -- is essential. Critical thinking! Can morality and critical thinking co-evolve? Why not?
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        Nov 8 2012: Thank you Howard - don't want to annoy people, do sometimes get a bit off topic. Thank you again for the lovely debate.
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    Nov 8 2012: "I was heartened to learn that airbnb was using its system to help people on the east coast of the USA find temporary housing. So yes, I do see people using technology to help people happening all over the place, from donors choose to kickstarter, microloans, systems for sharing resources. Crisis mapping (Ushahidi), Witness. Many efforts that combine human interaction with empowering technology."

    Ah yes! I did see that. What an excellent idea.

    So, Howard, the big question... where do you see these technologies in 5-10 years? What do you think will be the next "big thing" in mind-extending technology?
  • Nov 8 2012: Thank you, Elizabeth. And of course, morality has been the bailiwick of religion. And indeed, David Sloan Wilson in "Darwin's Cathedral" made the case that religions enhance the survival capabilities of believers by giving them a reason to cooperate and exhibit kindness to one another.
  • Nov 8 2012: Morton -- I'm hoping that journalists, citizen journalists, educators, and citizen scientists will step up to the challenge you note. Neither commerce nor technology deals with the future consequences of innovation. Now that we know about the way individually empowering inventions like the automobile can lead to systemic problems when billions of people use them, perhaps that is a strong clue to future designers. I do think engineering education must include what have been known as the "liberal arts." The name comes from "liberal" as in "liberty" -- the ancient Greeks thought that if citizens were to govern themselves, they needed an education that transcended the merely technical. And Steve Jobs argued that his success had as much to do with his liberal arts education as his understanding of engineering. It does seem that civilizations seem to adjust only to disasters. At what point, for example, do disastrous weather events add up to irrefutable evidence of what climate scientists have been saying? If it is true that carbon emissions are changing earth's climate, then what can be done in practical terms? That's not just an engineering problem. It's political and social. It's what Ostrom was tackling in regard to "Governing the Commons." Political decisions about policy are being made without reference to scientific knowledge. Education and somehow inducing politicians to pay attention to science are two pathways. How we get there, I am not sure.
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      Nov 8 2012: I think that's a really good point about needing to build it into education. I'm even thinking that waiting to incorporate future thinking into engineering education may be too late, that it may be time for an additional step in the scientific method that's taught in second grade science classes: What are my conclusions? And what are their social ramifications?
  • Nov 8 2012: Philip, I am chagrined to confess that I am not familiar with these books. I do think that we humans have a long ways to go in understanding all the aspects of human intellect and that we should not become attached to models of the brain that are based on current technology -- it was useful for a time to consider Newtonian clockwork brains, Freudian hydraulic brains, Hebbian neural-network brains, but these models are only provisionally useful.
  • Nov 8 2012: I was also influenced by Buckinster Fuller's call for "comprehensive" thinking and Donella Meadows on "systems thinking." So many of the problems and hidden costs triggered by technologies that provide other benefits have to do with systems effects. Schooling is such a narrowing process, with the lower grades concentrating on compliance to a passive-learner model and higher grades channeling the most successful students into increasingly fragmented disciplines. It isn't easy to pursue interdisciplinary education or careers, yet so many problems are caused by people with high skills in narrow disciplines who invent tools that disrupt systems they hadn't considered. We need to think more about systemic effects.
  • Nov 8 2012: So how does this tie into such concepts as The Mailman in "True Names", or Norman in "Bookworm, Run!"? Is the concept of intelligence aligned with a Markov chain computing system? That computing and access to data need to be balanced for optimal intelligence to be achieved?
  • Nov 8 2012: I want to expand a little bit about social capital, Aja. While thinkers such as Bordieu have argued that those with more economic capital and power also have a tremendous edge in regard to social capital, I would point out that people who have few economic resources have always had to depend on each other to get the necessities of life. I am thinking of the definition of social capital as a measure of the capacity of groups or populations to accomplish collective action -- to get t hings done together -- outside of formal institutions such as laws, states, and contracts. Can better communication, better education, and better institutions (in the Ostrom sense) provide access to pathways to a better life? I'm not talking about solving social problems by throwing technology at them. I'm talking about enabling people to communicate, relate, and problem-solve more effectively using technologies and the literacies that enable them to make best use of these tools.
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      Nov 8 2012: Absolutely. Your example of the networks springing up to help locate Katrina survivors was a great one, I think. Do you see these sorts of interactions happening on an everyday basis, as well? Or do the most effective implementations of social capital via technology get drowned out by the less important uses?
      • Nov 8 2012: I was heartened to learn that airbnb was using its system to help people on the east coast of the USA find temporary housing. So yes, I do see people using technology to help people happening all over th e place, from donors choose to kickstarter, microloans, systems for sharing resources. Crisis mapping (Ushahidi), Witness. Many efforts that combine human interaction with empowering technology.
  • Nov 8 2012: Aja, here are a few links to articles about people with few socioeconomic resources who are able to use tools like mobile phones to make their lives bette by giving them access to information that has traditionally been available to the more advantages and by giving them tools for cultivating social capital where financial capital may not be abundant:

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    Nov 8 2012: Actually, I just remembered this: http://peace.facebook.com/

    Have you seen this project? Do you think this sort of effort can make a real difference in how we connect with each other?
    • Nov 8 2012: Enabling people to use communication media to bridge differences has huge potential and ought to be part of the solution, but I am cautious about magical thinking around technology -- throwing digital tools at people is not necessarily going to solve their problems. When media can help people find better ways to help each other, however, i do see hope. Abolition of slavery was once a utopian idea. It took a bloody war in the USA to resolve the issue here, but would abolitionism have been more than a utopian cult without print literacy and journalism?
  • Nov 8 2012: Morton raises an important point, and one that I attempt to address in the book. I was influenced by Joseph Weizenbaum's argument in the 1960s in "Computing Power and Human Reason" that digital computers amplify one aspect of the human mind -- our intellect -- and I was also influenced by Ivan Illich's critiques of technology and call for "convivial tools." So I am hoping that this book will introduce thinkers like Weizenbaum and Illich, as well as Elinor Ostrom (whose work concentrates on how humans overcome differences to create institutions for collective action) and to face the dilemma that better reasoning doesn't necessarily make for more convivial relations. I don't believe it is possible or desirable to stop the co-evolution of human ways of thinking and doing with increasingly powerful and accessible technologies, but I do believe that designers of these technologies would do well to ponder what ISN'T amplified by expanding the power of reason alone. I don't pretend to have the answer, but hope to help elevate the question of the place of conviviality, empathy, compassion, systems thinking in the design of mind-tools.
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    Nov 8 2012: You also talk about "the distinction between 'convivial tools' and the kinds of technology that deaden, poison, dull, and imprison the human spirit."

    I'm curious about this… do you have any thoughts on what the layman could do to use these tools in a more mindful, convivial way, or to encourage others to do so? You say we need to learn by example, but as you point out, a large portion of behavioral examples on social networks isn't the most useful or cooperative. Do you know of any examples of these tools being used convivially?
    • Nov 8 2012: We need to examine our social practices. Don't text while your children are trying to get your attention! Use that laptop in the classroom judiciously. Metacognition -- becoming aware of how we are deploying our attention -- is especially important in an environment when the screens all around us magnetically attract our attention. In terms of cooperation, I worked with Institute for the Future to try to aggregate information about what we know: http://cooperationcommons.com -- there is a lot of knowledge and many examples.
  • Nov 8 2012: So I'm not so much thinking of some kind of world-brain or hive mind but of bootstrapping human culture, the way speech, writing, and other mind-tools enabled our predecessors to invent more complex ways of life, harness more power, and increase the capability of humans to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And now we're facing the consequences of our own success as a species -- we've altered the environment to our benefit, but now we are seeing that not all the consequences are beneficial. In Mind Amplifier, one of the most important messages I try to get across is that Vannevar Bush, JCR Licklider, and Doug Engelbart were aiming to create tools to help humans to solve problems more effectively -- problems that our own success as a species have created.
  • Nov 8 2012: Aja -- to credit the critics of the sub-title, it's never as simple as plugging brains into machines. I quote Doug Engelbart, whose lab invented the mouse, hypertext, word processing, and much more, who noted in his 1962 paper on "Augmenting Human Intellect" that he proposed a system that includes "humans, using language, artifacts, methodology, and training." One of the most important aspects of homo sapiens t hat distinguishes us from other species is social learning. So it's not just about connecting brains to one another or about connecting brains to digital media, but also about devising new ways to use these tools and teaching people new methods, devising new language and institutions. Just as print enabled literate populations to create democratic nation states and science as a collective enterprise.
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    Nov 8 2012: And, if increasing our intelligence really does come down to increasing our connections to each other's knowledge, what's the next big step? Are we advancing to a world where we all share one enormous "brain"? :)
  • Nov 8 2012: Aja, ancient mind amplifying tools like writing benefit the individual mind, or at least a small and local community of minds. What has changed over the last century and a half has been these two barriers have come down: mind amplification now works across any distance and with any number of minds. This started with the telegraph (distance) and movies and radio (audience) and has reached a crescendo on the internet. Infinite audience, infinite distance, and infinitesimal time.
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    Nov 8 2012: Thanks Howard! I was particularly intrigued by this line, regarding Google as a mind-extending tool:

    "It’s not just an outboard extension of my memory — it’s a connection to the memory of everyone in the world (and I certainly have to do my own crap detection on what I find). I don’t interact just with machines, but with people and networks of people."

    Is every "mind-amplifying" tool simply a way of facilitating access to the knowledge that other humans possess? Does this technology ever give us anything on its own?
  • Nov 8 2012: I know that Dr. Rheingold is not answering questions from people that don't read their book (yet), but I am very interested in knowing their thought about the effects of visualization in the new cognitive models. I am a simple Mexican teacher and I know the Rheingolds works since 90's
  • Nov 8 2012: Aja -- the important leverage offered by cultural tools (speech, writing, alphabets, printing presses, etc) is that they enable people to bootstrap our capabilities by using these tools to create better ways to solve problems (some of these ways are technologies, some of them are methods and institutions such as schools, for example). High-tech tools empower humans by extending our capabilities -- just as a lever extends the capabilities of a human arm, a pencil, paper, and knowledge of arithmetic extends the capabilities of a human brain.