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The Age of knowledge : Unexpected opportunities, by Prof. Mihai Nadin (excerpt)

The great thinker of anticipatory systems, Prof. Mihai Nadin, honours LEAP with the publication of an excerpt of the book he wrote in 1997, entitled “The Civilization of Illiteracy“, the vision of which is revealed by the striking relevence of the analysis more than 20 years later. In these times when a massive educational overhaul must be triggered for human civilization to address the huge challenges human civilization is facing in this (brave) new 21st world, reading these lines come from the end of the last century casts a light and provides a perspective prone to the creativity required for the invention of education in our organic data-based society. The present excerpt is the conclusion of the first chapter entitled : “The interactive future : individual, community and society in the age of the web“.

We have heard the declaration over and over: This is the age of knowledge. The statement describes a context of human practical experiences in which the major resources are cognitive in nature. In the civilization of literacy, knowledge acquisition could take place at a slow pace, over long periods of time. The interlocking factors that defined the pragmatic context were such that no other gnoseological pattern was possible. Knowledge arising from practical experiences of industrial society progressively contributed to making life easier for human beings. Eventually, everything that had been done through the power of human muscle and dexterity—using mainly hands, arms, and legs—was assigned to machines and executed using energy resources found in the environment. Cognition supported the incremental evolution of machines through a vast array of applications.

Human knowledge allowed for the efficient use of energy to move machines which executed tasks that might have taken tens, even hundreds of men to perform.

To make this more clear, let us compare some of the tasks of the Machine Age with those of the Age of Cognition we live in. Within industrial pragmatics, the machine supplanted the muscle and the limited mechanical skills needed for processing raw materials, manu- facturing cars, washing clothes, or typing. Discoveries of more sources of coal, gas, and oil kept the machine working and led to its extension from the factory to the home. Literacy, embodying charac- teristics of industrial pragmatics, kept pace with the demands and possibilities of the Machine Age. In our age, computer programs supplant our thinking and the limited knowledge involved in super- vising complex production and assembly lines that process raw mate- rials or synthesize new material. Computer programs are behind the manufacture of automobiles; they integrate household functions— heating, washing clothes, preparing meals, guarding our homes. Publishing on the World Wide Web relies on computers. The scale of all these efforts is global. Many languages, bearing the data needed by each specific sub-task, go into the final product or outcome. Older dependencies on natural resources and on a social model shaped to optimally support industrial praxis are partially overcome as the focus changes from permanence to transitory communities of interest and to the individual—the locus of the Cognitive Age.

Cognitive resources arise from experiences qualitatively different from those of the Machine Age. Digital engines do not burn coal or gas. Digital engines burn cognition. The source of cognition lies in the mind of each human being. The resources of the Machine Age are being slowly depleted. Alternative resources will be found in what was typically discarded. Recycling and the discovery of processes that extract more from what is available depend more on human cognition than on brute force processing methods. The sources of cognition are, in principle, unlimited. But if the cognitive component of human practical experiences were to stagnate or break down for some unimaginable reason, the pragmatics based on the underlying digital process of the Age of Cognition would break down also. To understand this, one need only think of being stuck in a car on an untravelled road, all because the gasoline ran out. Compare this situ- ation with what would happen if the most complex machine, more complicated than anything science fiction could describe, came to a halt because there was no human thought to keep it going.

In the current context, the dynamics of cognition, distributed between processing information and acquiring and disseminating knowledge, stands for the dynamics of the entire system of our existence. Embodied in technologies and processing procedures, cognition contributes to the fundamental separation of the individual human from the productive task, and from a wide variety of non-productive activities. It is not necessary that an individual possess all knowledge that a pragmatic experience requires. This means, simply, that operators in nuclear power plants need not be eminent physicists or mathematicians. Neither do all workers in a space research program need to be rocket scientists. A programmer might be ignorant of how a disk drive works. A brain surgeon does not know how the tools he or she uses are made. Each facet of a pragmatic instance entails specific requirements. The whole pragmatic experience requires knowledge above and beyond what the individuals directly involved can or should master. Instead of limited knowledge uniformly dispensed through literate methods, knowledge is distributed and embodied in tools and methods, not in persons. The advantage is that programs and procedures are made uniform, not human beings. For example, data management does not substitute for advanced knowledge, but a data management system as such can be endowed with knowledge in the form of routines, procedures, operation schemes, management, and self-evaluation.

Just as everyone kept the mechanical engine going, everyone, layperson or expert, contributes to the functioning of the digital engine. The only source of cognition that we can count on is within people self-constituted through practical experiences involving the digital. This does not mean that everyone will become a thinker and everyone will produce knowledge. Two sources of knowledge are relevant in the Age of Cognition within which the civilization of illiteracy unfolds. One source is the advanced work of experts and researchers, in areas of higher abstraction, way beyond what literacy can handle. The other, much more critical, source is to be found in common-sense human interaction, in day-to-day human experience. We know that the knowledge of experts will continue to be integrated in the pragmatics of this age. The specific motivations of human practical experiences resulting in knowledge have to be rec- ognized and stimulated. And we must also be aware of circumstances that could have a negative effect on these experiences.

We know less about the second source of knowledge because in previous pragmatic contexts it was less critical, and widely ignored. In particular, we do not know how to tap into the infinite reservoir of cognitive resources that are manifested through the routine work and everyday life of the overwhelming portion of the world’s population. Taken individually, each person can contribute cognitive resources to the broader dynamics of the world. But these individual contribu- tions are random, difficult to identify, and do not necessarily justify the effort of mining them. In our lives, many decisions and choices are made on the basis of extremely powerful procedures of which we, as individuals, are almost never aware. There is a grain of genius in some of the most mundane ways of doing things. Here the nodal points of integration in the multi-dimensional array that constitutes the globality of humankind are what counts. Delving into the dynamic collective persona makes such an effort worthwhile.

Years ago, in a dialogue with a prominent researcher in education, who used to maintain interactive simulations for youngsters who logged in at his institute, I discussed the then fashionable Game of Life (developed by John Horton Conway). As an open-ended simulation of the rules of birth and death, and based on the theory of cel- lular automata, the game required quite a bit of thinking. There is no winner or loser in the Game of Life. Although the rules of the game are relatively simple, highly complex forms of artificial life arise on the matrix: a cell going from empty to full describes birth, from full to empty, death. Satisfaction in playing is derived from reaching complex forms of life.

The idea we discussed was to make the game widely available on the network. The hundreds of thousands of players would leave traces of cognitive decisions that, over time, would add up to an expression of the intelligence of the collective body who shared an interest in the game. The cognitive sum total is of a Gestalt nature — much higher than the sum of its parts. That is, the sum has a differ- ent qualitative condition, probably comparable to that of the experts and geniuses, or even much higher! Considering all the instances of human application to tasks that range from being frankly useless to highly productive, one can surmise that the second source of knowledge and intelligence is much more interesting than that of the dedicated thinkers. There is more to what we do and how we choose than rationality and thinking, never mind literate rationality.

This collective persona need not comprise the entire population of the world (minus the knowledge professionals). It would help to start with groups formed ad hoc, groups which share an interest in a certain activity, such as playing games, or surfing for a particular piece of information, from the trivial “How do I get from here to there?” to whatever people are looking for—football scores, pornog- raphy, crossword puzzles, recipes, investment information, support in facing a certain problem, love, inter-generational conflicts, religion— anything. The challenge comes in capturing the cognitive resources at work, making inferences from the small or vast collective bodies of common focus, and coming up with viable procedures that can be utilized to enhance individual performance—all this without shaping future individual performance into grotesque repetitive patterns, no matter how successful they might be.

If there is validity to the notion that we are in the age of knowledge, we cannot limit ourselves to the knowledge of a few, no matter how exceptional these few are. The civilization of illiteracy transcends the literate model of individual performance considered a guarantee of the performance of society at large.

As practical experiences become more complex, breakdowns can be avoided only at the expense of more cognitive resources. We know that it took millennia before primitive notation progressed to writing and then to generalized literacy. In the Age of Cognition, we cannot afford such a long cycle for integrating human cognitive resources. Marvin Minsky once pointed out how much mind activity is lost in the leisure of  watching football games on TV. While relax- ation is essential to human existence, nobody can claim, in good faith, that what has resulted from the enormously increased efficiency of cognition-based practical experiences is not wasted to a great extent. Short of giving up, one has to entertain alternatives. But alternatives to this situation cannot be legislated. It is clear that within the moti- vations of the global economy, the need to identify and tap more sources of cognition will result in ways to stimulate human interac- tion. Watching TV probably generates thoughts that only die on the ever larger screens in our homes. Surfing the Web, where millions of hits are counted on the pornography sites—not on mathematics or literature sites—is also a waste and a source of mediocrity. Mouse potatoes are not necessarily better than the couch variety.

If we could derive cognition even from the many experiences of human self-constitution in computer games, we could not only further the success of the industry that changed the way humans play, but gain some insight into motivations, cognitive and emotional aspects of this elementary form of human identity. Above and beyond the speculation on playful man (Homo Ludens), there are quantifiable aspects of competition, satisfaction, and pleasure. And as the Internet effectively maps our journey through a maze of data, information, and sources of knowledge, we can ask whether such cognitive maps are not too valuable to be abandoned to marketing experts, instead being utilized for understanding what makes us tick as we search for a word, an image, an experience. Data regarding how and what we buy is not always representative of what we are. For many people, buying a book or a work of art, a fashionable shirt, a home, or a car is only an experience in mediation performed by the agents of these objects. But there are authentic experiences in which no one can replace us human beings. Games belong to this domain, and so do joking and interactions with friends. No agent can replace us. Within such authentic moments of self-constitution, cognitive resources of exceptional value are at work.

Many people from very different locations and of different back- grounds might simultaneously be present on a certain Web site, without ever knowing it. The server’s performance could suggest that there is quite a crowd at a Web site, but it cannot say who the others are, what they are looking for, what kind of cognition drives the digi- tal engine of their particular experiences.

While the medium of networking is more transparent than literacy experiences, it still maintains a certain opaqueness, enhanced by the firewalls meant to protect us from ourselves. Many individuals present at the same time on a Web site is not a situation one can duplicate in literacy, in which the ratio was one reader to one book, or one magazine, or even one videotape (although more than one can watch it on the family TV set, in a class, or on an airplane). Thousands of viewers simultaneously landing on a Web site is a chance and a challenge. We should accordingly think of methods for identi- fying ourselves, to the extent desired, and declare willingness to interact. This next level of self-constitution and identification is where the potential of rich interactions and further generation of cognition becomes possible. Tapping into cognitive resources in such situations is an opportunity we should not postpone.

Burning cognition, digital engines allow us to reach efficiency that is higher by many orders of magnitude in comparison to the efficiency attained by engines burning coal and oil. But the experience introduces the pressure of accelerated accumulation of data, information processing, and knowledge utilization. To understand the intimate relation between the performance of the digital engine and our own performance, one has only to think of a coal-burning steam engine driving a locomotive uphill. The civilization of illiteracy is a rather steep ascent, facing many obstacles—our physical abilities, limited natural resources, ecological concerns, ability to handle social com- plexity. To pull the brake will only make the effort of the engine more difficult, unless we want to tumble downhill, head first. Feeding the furnace faster is the answer that every sensible engineer knows. This would sound like a curse, were it not for the excitement of discovery, including that of our own cognitive resources.

Analogy aside, what drives the digital engine is not abstract computing cycles of faster chips, but human cognition embodied in experiences that support further diversification of experiences. It has yet to be the case that we had enough computing cycles to burn and we did not know what to do with the extra computing power avail- able. On the contrary, human practical experiences are always ahead of technology, as we challenge ourselves with new tasks for which the chips of yesterday and the memory available are as inappropriate as the methods and means of literacy.

Bio-electric signals associated with the activity of our minds have been measured for quite a number of years. We learned from such measurements that minds are constituted in anticipation of our practical experience of self-identification as human beings. The idea seemed far-fetched, despite the strong scientific evidence on which it was ultimately founded. Cognition is process, and bio-electric signals are indicative of cognitive processes in our minds. Sensors attached to the skin, such as through a simple finger glove, can read such signals. In effect, they read unfolding mind processes based on our cognitive resources. Feeding digital engines hungry to burn cognition, we arrive not only at mind-controlled prosthetic devices for people with disabilities, but also at a mind-driven painter’s brush, or desktop film directing, allowing us to get involved with cinematographic projects of scripting and affecting variations of the plot. From pinball games to tennis and skiing, from virtual bowling to virtual football, our thoughts make new experiences possible. For those affected by disabilities, this is a qualitatively new horizon. Einstein, but many others as well, was quite convinced that only 10 percent of our cognitive abilities are effectively engaged in what we do. As the digital engine burns more and more cognition, this number will change, as probably our physical condition, already marked by forms of degeneration, will change too.

If, by using only one-tenth of our cognitive resources, we reach the level of possibilities presently open to us, it is not too hard to imagine what only one more tenth might bring. The civilization of illiteracy, with all the dangers and inequities it has to address, is only at  its  beginning. That  its  duration will be shorter than the one preceding it is another subject.

Prof. Mihai Nadin, Excerpt “The Civilization of Illiteracy”, Dresden University Press, 1997


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