June 22, 2008, 12:29 PM — One of the golden rules of commerce is that you should not seek to outsource your core competencies.
One of the golden rules of brain surgery is that you cannot cut a brain into pieces to outsource some bits of it, without doing significant damage to the owner of the brain.
On the face of it, outsourcing bits of brain function does not appear viable. However, a large part of the corpus of endeavor we refer to as technology is really just brain outsourcing. It is not a new phenomenon either. We have been doing it for millennia.
Let us start with one of my famously dubious generalizations. What does the brain actually do?
1) It remembers stuff: memory.
2) It calculates stuff: computation.
3) It manages biological stuff like hormones, respiration etc.: telemetry/regulation.
4) It spots connections between stuff: inference/association/reasoning.
I have put these four in that order for a purpose. Let's take them in order
Remembering stuff? When did we start outsourcing that? That one started with the advent of writing systems thousands of years ago.
Calculating stuff? When did we start outsourcing that? The abacus and the slide rule are early examples.
Managing physiological stuff? Well, arguably modern drugs and modern medicine consist of using external technologies to supplement/supplant what the brain/body combination can do for itself. Pace makers, hearing aids and so on are specific examples of outsourcing physiological stuff.
That leaves number 4. Spotting connections between stuff. What do I mean by that? I mean the amazing ability of the brain to take what it knows and find associations/connections between disparate parts. The incredible ability to imagine, to infer, to ask "what if" and "I wonder..." questions.
Now let's worry about each of these in turn. Are you worried that writing effectively allows the outsourcing of memory? I am not worried by it because it greatly extends the reach of any one brain. Furthermore, if I dump thoughts to words (as I am doing now), I am no longer the only conceivable consumer of those thoughts. Writing as a "brain dump" doubles up as a sharing tool. How cool is that?
Are you worried that calculators/computers/cash registers effectively allow basic math to be done outside your brain? I do worry a little about this one. I have definitely noticed that my ability to calculate in my head is less now than it was, say, twenty years ago. "Use it or lose it", they say. Well, I have mostly lost it. What have I gained? I have gained the ability to do calculations that would actually be impossible to do in a single brain. I can do millions of calculations a second now (thanks to my computer). I could never have done that before.
Are you worried that medicine allows the outsourcing of many forms of monitoring/regulation previously done by the brain? Absolutely not. I myself and my kids would probably not be here without modern medicine.
Are you worried that the Web allows the outsourcing of many forms of inference/association/reasoning by "spoon feeding" you with information and then spoon feeding you with information about what other bits of information are related to the current page of information?
Hmmm. Am I worried? I honestly don't know and I am reading the recent memes on this with great interest. Before the web, tracing associations between things by rummaging through card indexes and hunting down bibliography entries and reading turgid "survey of the field" papers was a real pain. Now we hit the search engines and the blogs and the WIKIs and we have ready access to more associations between things than we can possibly process.
Worried? Try it this way. Take away the technology behind each and see how uncomfortable you feel. Take away writing. That would be silly right? Take away calculators? Maybe. Take away heart pacemakers? Definitely not. Take away the internet?
Can you imagine life without the internet? Would your business even be here without search engines? Without e-mail? Would your business be viable without all the technological crutches of the early twenty first century?
Mankind is clearly outsourcing more and more brain function to electronic devices. For me, the only truly worrying one is the one we are now doing on the internet. Namely, inference/association/reasoning. If this too goes into the cloud what is left in the skull? Mindfulness? Faith? Sensory perception?
We are on a road towards discovering what it really means to be human. The truly human bits are the bits that will be left when the digital outsourcing wave (also known as the technology wave) has run its course.
How will we know that we have reached that point? That is easy. If a computer tells us, then the moment will already have passed. If a human voice is required, then humanity will have survived the sternest of "core competency" tests - the one it sets itself.