Cognitive Carrion

How Computation Killed Knowledge

Knowledge has been struck dead by technologists and now it’s rotting on the shoulder of the Information Superhighway.

Wikipedia has mechanistically centralized world knowledge and abolished diversity of thought. Authority is leveled, individual voices have been smoothed over and truth has been compromised in favor of expert-group approval. We no longer learn by reading books by people who have spent their lives carefully examining and thinking about subjects, but rather we consult the boiled-down scum left at the bottom of the pan after the Wiki-workers have rendered their summary judgments from our rich and nuanced history of thought.

Why do people prefer Wikipedia’s authority over books? Because consulting Wikipedia is quick and easy, while real learning takes serious effort and time. In other words, it sells better because it satisfies and gives pleasure without effort, like a soft drink.

On another front, Google has algorithmically sucked the living definitions from dictionaries and spewed them back out as bad data.

Google the word “abide” and you’ll find an egregious error. Definition 2 says “abide” is to,

be unable to tolerate (someone or something).

That’s an antonym for “abide,” the opposite of its definition, but Google informs everyone that it’s simply an informal meaning. While the example sentence Google displays does use “abide” correctly, nobody should regard the example usage as the definitive meaning, especially when it disagrees with the definition itself. When they disagree, one ought to assume that the example is in error, not the definition.

Why does Google’s advanced technology make this mistake? Because Google’s methods for showing definitions differ from Oxford’s, their source of data in this case. Here’s Oxford’s second definition of “abide,” which is correct:

[WITH OBJECT] (can/could not abide) informal Be unable to tolerate (someone or something): if there is one thing I cannot abide it is a lack of discipline.

Do you see how that works? Oxford’s methods describe how “abide” is often used informally in the negative by preceding it with negating words, but Google only takes part of Oxfords text and discards the rest of the definition as extraneous data.

While the Oxford scholars are human, and can err, as a group they attempt to reduce their error through collaboration and review, and so they don’t make gross mistakes like computers can and often do. Who knows how rampantly Google has misdefined the English language? Because Google is probably the number one source for English definitions today, this ought to scare you.

You may object to my complaint about Google’s error in this case on the grounds that it’s obvious what they mean. To respond, I’d first point out that people often lookup words because they don’t know what those words mean, even if you do. Secondly, due to the nature of etymology, some words have reversed their meaning over time, and do indeed contradict themselves in their dictionary definitions. I’ll point you to the word “nonplussed” as a good example of this. Words will reverse their meaning over time out of confusion, as the definition of “nonplussed” attests, but that’s our human nature at work —and these etymological cases of error illuminate our history of knowledge and culture — but should we now allow the computers to make those mistakes for us, and on a massive scale?

We’ve deliberately reduced our human capacity for thought in order to achieve our technical goals for more technical achievement. We now think in terms of information rather than knowledge, a stream of data derived from quantification of quality rather than the experience of understanding acquired through perception and comprehension. The first type of thought is compatible with the computer, while the second is natural and at odds with the computer — and programmers spend their careers doing the work of translation. I should know: that’s all I did for 30 years.

To get along, we conform to the machine, and to excel, we make ourselves into perfect imitators of the machine. To breathe and to love one other is human, but to measure input and produce output is calculable. We learn to respect utility over meaning, and automation over appreciation.

This is how we’ve reduced our human knowledge to only the information that computers can process and convey back to us. We’ve become cybernetic imbeciles, wandering idiots with cameras instead of eyes and smartphones instead of smart minds — and we celebrate our condition as advanced. Our condition is indeed advanced, like that of a patient suffering from a degenerative neurological disease.

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