• 《Is Google Making Us Stupid》——part 2 - [翻译]

    2009-11-17

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    Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

    But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

    Also see:


    Living With a Computer

    (July 1982)
    "The process works this way. When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen..." By James Fallows

    “You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler , Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

    The human brain is almost infinitely malleable. People used to think that our mental meshwork, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion or so neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. But brain researchers have discovered that that’s not the case. James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

    As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”—the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities—we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies. The mechanical clock, which came into common use in the 14th century, provides a compelling example. In Technics and Civilization, the historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford  described how the clock “disassociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences.” The “abstract framework of divided time” became “the point of reference for both action and thought.”

    The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man. But it also took something away. As the late MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum  observed in his 1976 book, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, the conception of the world that emerged from the widespread use of timekeeping instruments “remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.” In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.

    The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.

    The Internet promises to have particularly far-reaching effects on cognition. In a paper published in 1936, the British mathematician Alan Turing  proved that a digital computer, which at the time existed only as a theoretical machine, could be programmed to perform the function of any other information-processing device. And that’s what we’re seeing today. The Internet, an immeasurably powerful computing system, is subsuming most of our other intellectual technologies. It’s becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV.

    When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.

    The Net’s influence doesn’t end at the edges of a computer screen, either. As people’s minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media, traditional media have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. When, in March of this year, TheNew York Times decided to devote the second and third pages of every edition to article abstracts , its design director, Tom Bodkin, explained that the “shortcuts” would give harried readers a quick “taste” of the day’s news, sparing them the “less efficient” method of actually turning the pages and reading the articles. Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

    Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.

    About the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor  carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.

    More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”

    Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”

    Google’s headquarters, in Mountain View, California—the Googleplex—is the Internet’s high church, and the religion practiced inside its walls is Taylorism. Google, says its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is “a company that’s founded around the science of measurement,” and it is striving to “systematize everything” it does. Drawing on the terabytes of behavioral data it collects through its search engine and other sites, it carries out thousands of experiments a day, according to the Harvard Business Review, and it uses the results to refine the algorithms that increasingly control how people find information and extract meaning from it. What Taylor did for the work of the hand, Google is doing for the work of the mind.

    The company has declared that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It seeks to develop “the perfect search engine,” which it defines as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” In Google’s view, information is a kind of commodity, a utilitarian resource that can be mined and processed with industrial efficiency. The more pieces of information we can “access” and the faster we can extract their gist, the more productive we become as thinkers.

    Where does it end? Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the gifted young men who founded Google while pursuing doctoral degrees in computer science at Stanford, speak frequently of their desire to turn their search engine into an artificial intelligence, a HAL-like machine that might be connected directly to our brains. “The ultimate search engine is something as smart as people—or smarter,” Page said in a speech a few years back. “For us, working on search is a way to work on artificial intelligence.” In a 2004 interview with Newsweek, Brin said, “Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”

    Such an ambition is a natural one, even an admirable one, for a pair of math whizzes with vast quantities of cash at their disposal and a small army of computer scientists in their employ. A fundamentally scientific enterprise, Google is motivated by a desire to use technology, in Eric Schmidt’s words, “to solve problems that have never been solved before,” and artificial intelligence is the hardest problem out there. Why wouldn’t Brin and Page want to be the ones to crack it?

    Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

    The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Most of the proprietors of the commercial Internet have a financial stake in collecting the crumbs of data we leave behind as we flit from link to link—the more crumbs, the better. The last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.

    1882年的某个时候,弗里德里希·尼采买了一台莫林-汉森写作滚珠的打字机,是恰到好处的。他的视觉有问题,当他眼睛保持聚焦于一页上的时候,就变得非常疲劳和痛,常常还会引起头痛。他曾被迫缩短他的写作,并且他还恐怕自己将会不得不放弃。而这台打字机救了他,至少在一段时间里是这样的。一旦他控制了触摸打印机,他就能闭着眼睛,只需要使用他的指尖,单词就会一个一个的从他的思想流转到文章中。

    但是,这台机器对他的文章产生了微妙的影响。尼采的一个作曲家朋友发现了他写作风格的变化。他已经精炼的散文变得更加紧密,更加电报化。“也许你能利用这一工具达到一种新的风格。”这个朋友在一封信中写道,并指出在他自己的作品中,他“音乐和语言中的思想常常取决于钢笔和纸张的质量。”

     “你是对的”,尼采回复,“我们的写作设备对我们思想的形成起作用。”在机器的操控下,德国媒体学者弗里德里希基特勒认为:尼采的散文“从论证变为格言,从思想变为双关语,从华丽的语言变为电报式风格”

    人类大脑几乎有无限的可塑性。人们过去常常考虑我们的精神网络组织,在我们大脑内的一千亿左右神经元之间的紧密联系,在很大程度上是在我们到达成年这段时间固定的。但是大脑研究者已经发现,事实并非如此。指导乔治梅森大学高级研究所克拉斯诺的神经科学教授詹姆斯奥尔兹说,甚至成年人的大脑也“是很后天的”。神经细胞有规则的打破旧的联系,然后形成新的联系。奥尔兹说:“大脑有重新编程的能力,并且同时改变其运作方式”

    当我们使用社会学家丹尼尔贝尔称呼的我们的“智能技术”时,这个工具拓展了我们的精神,而不是身体的能力——我们不可避免的开始利用这些技术的特性。机械钟在十四世纪得到普遍应用提供了一个很有说服力的例子。在工艺和文明中,历史学家和文化评论家刘易斯·迈克叙述钟表是怎样“脱离人类活动的时间,并且帮助人们创造一种可衡量学术序列的独立世界的信念。”这个“分割时间的抽象框架”变成了“行为和思想的参照点”。

    钟表的有条不紊的滴答作响有助于培养科学的思想和科学的人。但是它也带来了一些其他的影响。正如已故的麻省理工学院的计算机科学家约瑟夫魏泽堡1976年在他的书《计算机性能与人类理性:从判断到计算》中的研究,世界的概念从计时工具的广泛传播使用开始形成。而这个工具“仍然是一个没有改善的旧版本,因为它以对那些直接经验的拒绝为基础,并且确实,这是旧的现实。” 在决定什么时候吃,什么时候工作,什么时候睡觉,什么时候起床的时候,我们不再听从我们的感觉,而开始依赖于钟表。

    适应新的智能技术的过程反映在我们用来给自己解释的隐喻上面。当有了机械钟,人们开始认为他们自己的大脑“像发条装置一样”运行。如今,在软件时代,我们已经开始认为他们的大脑是“像计算机一样”运行。但是神经科学家告诉我们,这些变化比隐喻深入多了。感谢我们大脑的可塑性,适应性也在一种生物学的水平上出现。

    英特网承诺对认知有特别深远的影响。在1936年出版的一篇论文上,英国数学家阿兰图灵证明一台数字化计算机能够被编程来执行任何其他信息处理设备的功能,而在那时数字化计算机只作为一种假设的机器出现。这就是我们今天看到的事实。英特网是一个能量无限的计算系统,它包含于了我们大部分其他智能技术中。它正在变为我们的地图和钟表,我们的印刷机和打字机,我们的计算器和电话,以及收音机和电视。

    当网络并入一种媒体时,这种媒体就在网络形象中进行重新创造。它通过超链接、闪动广告和其他的数字化的华而不实的东西注入媒体的内容,并且它用它已经并入的其他所有媒体的内容包围着它的内容。比如说,当我们正在浏览一个最新的报纸网站的头条时,可能就有一个新的电子邮件信息跳出来。这个结果就是分散我们的注意力,以及扩散我们的集中程度。

    网络的影响也没有在计算机屏幕的边缘结束。当人们的思想变得适应了网络媒体的狂乱,传统媒体不得不适应观众的新期望。电视节目增加了文本检索、弹出式广告、杂志和报纸缩短他们文章,介绍简练的摘要,通过易于浏览的信息片段群集他们的内容。在今年三月份,当《纽约时报》决定致力于每一版本的第二和第三页的文章摘要时,它的设计总监汤姆·博德金解释说,这种“快捷方式”将会给忙碌的读者一种阅读当天新闻的快速感觉,并且帮助他们避免用实实在在翻阅报纸并且去阅读文章的“低效”的方法。旧媒体除了遵循新媒体的规则,别无其他选择。

    从来没有一种通信系统像当今的英特网一样在我们的生活中起这么大的作用,或者对我们思想产生如此广泛的影响。然而,所有关于网络的文章中,几乎没有考虑它是如何精确地给我们重新编程的。网络的智力道德规范仍然是模糊的。

    大约与尼采开始使用他的打字机的同一时间,一位做事非常认真的年轻人弗雷德里克·温斯洛·泰勒带着一个计时表到费城米德韦尔钢铁厂,开始了旨在改善工厂机械师效率的一系列重大实验。在米德韦尔钢铁厂所有者的允许下,他招募了一组工厂工人,把他们安排在各种不同的金属加工机器上工作,并且对他们的每一个活动和操作进行记录和计时。通过把每个工作分解为一系列小的部分、不连续的步骤,然后测试每一执行的不同方法。泰勒创造了一组操作指南——运算法则,我们现在可以说,这些操作指南是每一个工作者应该遵循的。米德韦尔的雇员抱怨严格的新政权,他们声称这种新政权把他们变成了机器,但是这个工厂的生产率猛增。一百多年后,蒸汽机的发明,工业革命终于发现了它的哲学以及哲学家。泰勒的紧工业化设计——他喜欢称它为他的“系统”,被全国各地的制造商所接受,并且迟早会被全世界所接受。寻找最大化的速度、最大化的效率、最大化的产出,厂长运用工时-动作研究来组织他们的工作,并且为他们的工人分配工作。就像泰勒在他著名的1911年的论文《科学管理的原则》中定义的一样,目标是为每一个工作确定和采用最好的工作方法,由此影响整个机械艺术的科学规则的逐步替代。曾经,他的系统被应用于手工劳动的所有行动,泰勒向他的追随者们保证,它带来的不只是工业的重组,而且是社会的重组,创造完美效率的乌托邦。“在过去,人处于第一位”,他声称,“在未来,这个系统处于第一位。”

    泰勒的系统仍然被我们所应用,它仍然是工业制造的原则。现在,由于电力的发展,计算机工程师和软件编码者支配我们的智能生命,泰勒的原则也正开始控制思想领域。英特网是为有效的和自动化收集、转换和操作信息而设计的一台机器。它的大量的计划意在找到“最好的方法”——完美的运算法则——用来执行我们用来描述“知识工作”的每一个精神运动。

    谷歌的总部在加州山景城,谷歌村是英特尔的高教堂,教堂内的宗教实行的就是泰勒主义。谷歌的执行总监埃里克施密特说:“谷歌是一个围绕科学测量成立的公司,它正在努力实行系统化一切。”依据亿万行为数据,它通过搜索引擎和其他的网站手机搜集信息,通过《哈弗商业评论》,它一天执行数以千计的实验,并且它使用这个结果精炼运算法则,这个运算法则不断增长的控制着人们如何发现信息和从中提取意义。泰勒运用于体力劳动的,正是谷歌为脑力劳动所做的。

    谷歌公司已经声明它的任务是“组织全世界的信息,并且使它普遍地容易得到和有用。”它寻求成为“最完美的搜索引擎”——“精确地了解你的意图,并且给你精确的你想要的反馈。”在谷歌看来,信息是一种可以用产业效能开发和处理的有用的资源。我们能获得的信息越多,我们从中提取要点越快,我们作为思想家就变得更有益。

    它会在哪儿结束呢?谢尔盖布林和拉里佩奇是有天赋的年轻人,他们在斯坦福大学攻读计算机科学博士学位的时候,他们就把眼光放在了谷歌上。他们常常讲他们的愿望,就是把他们的搜索引擎转变为人工智能,这样,一台HAL似的机器就可以直接与我们的大脑联系起来。“最终的搜索引擎是与人类一样,或者比人类更聪明的东西。”佩奇在几年前的一次演讲上说,“对我们而言,在从事搜索是一种从事人工智能的方法。”在2004年接受新闻周刊的一次采访中,布林说:“如果你使得世界上所用的信息直接联系到你的大脑,或者人工的大脑比你自己的大脑更聪明,”你会更好。“去年,佩奇在一个科学家会议上说:“谷歌真的正在努力构建人工智能,并且将做大它的规模。”

    这样的一个企图是非常自然,甚至是令人钦佩的,因为一对数学能手,处理着巨大数额的现金,并且雇佣着许多的计算机科学家。作为一个基础的科学企业,谷歌是出于使用技术的目的。用埃瑞克斯密特的话说,“它解决之前从来没有被解决的问题”,而人工智能是至今为止最难的问题。为什么布林和佩奇不想成为第一个破解这一难题的人呢?

    他们假设:如果通过人工智能,我们的大脑被补充甚至被取代,我们将会更好。然而,这一简单假设使人不安。它表明了一种信念:智能是一种机械过程的输出,一系列被孤立、衡量和优化的不相关联的步骤。当我们在线时,我们就进入了谷歌的世界,在这个世界里,几乎没有为沉思的模糊性预留空间。模棱两可不是一种开放性的眼光,但错误是固定不变的。人类大脑就只是一台过期的计算机,它需要快速的处理器和一个更大的硬件驱动。

    我们的大脑应该像高速的数据处理机器一样去操作,这个想法不只是整合到网络运作中,它也是网络赛季的商业模型。我们浏览网络的速度越快,我们点击的链接就越多,这样,我们看到的网页就越多,谷歌和其他公司获得的机会就越多,他们搜集我们的信息,并且养活我们的广告。大部分的商业互联网企业都在手机信息片段方面拥有一个经济股份,当我们从一个链接跳到另一个链接而掠过信息时,我们就落后了——信息碎片越多越好。最后一点,这些公司应该做的是鼓励休闲的阅读,或者缓慢,集中思想。是他们的经济利益驱使我们分心。

     

     

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