Are We Forgetting How to Discover?


Have we become a society that doesn’t know how to discover anymore?  When I go online, Google serves up what I’m looking for before I really understand that I’m looking for it.  It’s creepy, and thrilling.

I just watched “Her” the other day.  (I know I’m running behind, but I have a boyfriend who only uses the cool dark confines of a movie theater to catch a nap.  As a result, I often fall prey to the beckoning Redbox kiosk that sits patiently at the end of the checkout inside my local Safeway.)  In the movie, the Siri-like voice on the cell phone anticipates needs – a richer experience than Google offers in my search results, but similar.

So… back to my original question… If modern technology has the ability to anticipate our needs, and to serve them before we ask, before we consider what we’re looking for, will we lose our ability to formulate our own desires?  Will we start to trust “the voice” that knows what we want and stop seeking?  For decades, science fiction has presented artificial intelligence in this way.  As a helpful application that anticipates our needs and delivers information like just-in-time inventory for our brains.

Here’s the downside:  Formulating questions is the basis of human discovery.  If we don’t formulate questions, if we don’t make unusual or unanticipated neural connections, where will new ideas come from?  Netflix prides themselves on their algorithms.  I don’t blame them.  If I was that good at complex mathematics, I would be darned proud of myself too.  But they’re still just a bit off with me.  Their algorithm is great at presenting me more options that are like the ones I’ve already watched.  (If you like “The Office”, you’ll probably like “Parks and Recreation”…)

But what if I want something that’s surprising?  Something that challenges me in a way I didn’t anticipate.  That is like nothing I’ve ever tried before.  Or maybe only a little like something I’ve tried before.  I never liked sushi until I tried it; it wouldn’t have shown up in my Netflix list.

I’m a fan of StumbleUpon because it brings me to websites I might never have seen otherwise.  I’ve been avoiding using the “like” button for fear that it will start to limit my choices.  But I’m also a fan of just going outside and talking to random strangers when they seem amenable to a chat.  I like to try new foods and meet new people.  I enjoy these things; they bring a richness to my life experience.

I think we all need random journeys, opportunities to discover something, without knowing what we might find.  I worry that, by focusing on the unending stream of that which technology serves to us, we might fall out of practice in seeking the unusual, losing the habit of using our remarkable brains.  I’d hate to see that happen…


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