When Should We Eat Our brains?

February 15th, 20116:26 pm @

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Show me a page of text and my eye immediately homes in on any typographical error. This tic is occasionally a blessing, more often a curse and a tiresome hindrance. Similarly with any new idea or project, I have an internal “yes, but” reflex that leaps forward to suggest ways that things could go wrong.

I jumped to support Dougald’s initiative in challenging the “closed shop” mindset of the funding opportunity that triggered this New Public Thinking blog. Not long after, the questions and hazards started surfacing.

Some of these crystallised for me when I signed up to contribute to another group blogging venture, the purpos/ed debate on the purpose of education. I’m lined up to be 40th in a list of professionals of various stripes, plus the occasional sanctioned amateur, giving their views on the purpose of education in the UK. The chances of finding anything genuinely original to say at this stage in the process seem terrifyingly small. I fear the risks of lapsing into empty demagoguery to seek validation, or gratuitous controversy to seek attention.

That’s my problem, and I’ve no one to blame but myself for opting in. But this case is one more example of a challenge that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to large group solutions. The open source movement has got us into the habit of believing that “with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow”. But lots of the problems we face are very different from debugging software. Solving them is more like unpicking knots. The more hands and eyes you devote to unpicking a knot, all at once, the tighter the knot gets.

We’re obsessed with the idea that focusing lots of smart, creative brains on a problem will force it into submission. Especially if those brains can tweet each other.

By definition, any solutions to the knotty problems we face — Vinay and Bridget do a great job of setting out problems like bioweapons proliferation and climate change — will be creative and innovative. But our definitions of creativity and innovation are surely far too thin, too focused on the head, on cognitive approaches. On being “clever”.

The issue is that such approaches do not scale. When the Royal Society was founded, the community of “natural philosophers” in the UK was fewer than Dunbar’s number. Again Vinay shows how the complexity of the issues we face now requires, at a minimum, several multiples of this number to cover all bases. His conclusion? “We’re fucked.”

Put several thousand termites together and they may build a mound that will help sustain them all. Put the same number of public thinkers together and — no matter how smart they are — you’ll get acres of bloggage but no food or shelter, let alone agreement on priorities for concerted action.

I’m re-reading Guy Claxton’s Noises from the Darkroom at the moment, and one passage leapt out at me in connection with this conundrum. Claxton is writing about the evolution of intelligence, starting with the evolutionary advantages of sense organs, mobility and the cognition to integrate these capabilities:

The young sea squirt is a tadpole-like larva that possesses a primitive brain, which can be informed about what it going on by an organ of balance (such as we humans have in the middle ear), and a simple eye. It is equipped to navigate its way through changing aquatic conditions whilst engaged in a process of once-and-for-all house-hunting. When it finds its ideal home the sea squirt gratefully settles down for life, and turns itself back into a plant by the simple expedient of eating its now redundant brain. (It has been suggested that this behaviour parallels that of university academics on finally obtaining a tenured appointment.)… the issue of what to do with a brain that has evolved to a level of power that is out of all proportion to the current survival demands… is one that bears on the contemporary situation of homo sapiens.

What if, now that we have the internet, the future for human intelligence lies in the pattern of links between us, rather than the cleverness of individual nodes or small clusters of individuals? What part of our brains, or brain function, should we eat? I’m only guessing, but my prime suspect would be some or all of our consciousness. Specifically our self-consciousness and the intellectual vanity, not-invented-here envy and general ego that focuses us on the nodes — our selves — rather the links.

I’m aware that there’s a sinister Brave New World undertow to this line of argument. In many ways it feels counterintuitive to me, but then I’ve completely absorbed the cult(ure)-of-cleverness that I’ve grown up in. I put enormous value on the insights of the other contributors and “public thinkers” at large (whoever they are) as a way of making sense of what’s going on around us. That’s why I support, may occasionally contribute to, this initiative. I’d be very happy for my wariness to be proven wrong.