Google’s “chief technology advocate”, Michael Jones, recently made an astonishingly bold statement.
“Effectively, people are about 20 IQ points smarter now because of Google Search and Maps,” he told the Atlantic magazine. “They don’t give Google credit for it, which is fine; they think they’re smarter, because they can rely on these tools”.
One of the original brains behind Google Maps – a tool whose latest innovations include some of the first ever detailed maps of North Korea – Jones is better placed to justify such a claim than most. Through technological tools, he argued, a “kind of extra-smartness is coming to people”. And it’s being delivered so seamlessly that most people only notice it when things go wrong – at which point “they feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.”
“Smart” is one of the iconic words of our times. When the world’s first “smart phone” appeared in 1997, courtesy of Swedish firm Ericsson, the label was carefully chosen to signify an evolutionary leap forward: the transition from a passive tool, used to make and receive calls, to an interactive device offering - in the words of its original packaging - not only an “address book/calendar/notepad” but also the then-miraculous promise of “voice/email/SMS/internet” in one’s pocket.
Today, as Jones’s formulation suggests, “smartness” suggests a particular species of sophistication brought by machines into daily living: the sophistication of tools which so effortlessly augment our capacities for thought and action that we feel like it’s us getting smarter. The “20 IQ points” he says are offered by Google Search and Maps are only the beginning. From smart cars to smart cities, via smart glasses and smart fridges, we live in an age where every facet of the manufactured world will soon come with its own handy hunk of machine intelligence.
So far as technology advocates are concerned, this is all for the better. Smarter devices mean smarter people, smarter behaviours, and less of the messy incompetence that sees us getting lost, crashing cars and running out of milk. For others, though, “smart” is a dangerous word, and one that merits a particular type of fear: that building a smart world may be an extremely stupid thing to do.
Each year, Edge magazine asks a single question of some of the world’s brightest minds. Its 2013 selection was the cheerful “what should we be worried about?” - and, for the polemical technology author Evgeny Morozov, the best answer was the word “smart” itself.
“All this smart awesomeness will make our environment more plastic and more programmable,” Morozov argued. “It will also make it very tempting to design out all imperfections—just because we can!—from our interactions, social institutions, politics... If problem-solvers can get you to recycle via a game, would they even bother with the less effective path of engaging you in moral reasoning?”
Morozov rejects the claim that smart devices automatically make for “extra-smart” people. Instead, he suggests, a special ignorance lurks within the assumption that “imperfections” should or can be designed out of existence - not least because these imperfections are a crucial part of what makes us resilient, creative and ethically responsible in the first place. “Blinded by the awesomeness of our tools,” he concludes, “we might forget that some problems and imperfections are just the normal costs of accepting the social contract of living with other human beings, treating them with dignity, and ensuring that, in our recent pursuit of a perfect society, we do not shut off the door to change.”