The Book Life
June 22, 2023
July 6, 2023


Photo by Ivan Obolensky

I once had a governess tell me a piece of profound wisdom couched as an admonition. I was looking at a giant slice of cake when she said, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” And she was right.

But it wasn’t just cake. I did it with knowledge, information, and especially books.

Once I bought a complete set of the World Book Encyclopedia on an installment plan. The lady who sold them to me was the number one seller of World Book in California. She told me that not a single person had fully read them, and yet she sold them by the ton. The reason for her success was that she never sold an encyclopedia. Instead, she sold the possibility of answers and knowledge. And she was right.

In the 1990s, when I heard about the World Wide Web, I grew excited. It meant that I would finally be able to learn Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity. I was giddy with anticipation, but the reality was different. The data was limited, and retrieval was exasperating. When faster downloads and better search algorithms came about, I thought I had the problem licked, but I didn’t. The knowledge I needed, at the level I wanted, just wasn’t available.

Eventually, I sweated through the work step-by-step using textbooks I had found using the Internet. That was one thing the Internet was really good for—finding stuff to buy.

Afterward, I came to two conclusions:

  1. Information isn’t learning.
  2. Speed of accessibility to information doesn’t boost intelligence.

More generally, the Internet will never make anyone smarter, but what about AI? It’s new. It may be artificial, like an artificial sweetener, but there is intelligence in its name. Are you interested in what it might do for you?

For a start, suppose there was a brain implant connected to a vast AI machine that could tell you what to say to land a girlfriend or a boyfriend. It could even tell you how to handle your boss and get a raise. It might even make you rich, by whispering in your mind which stocks to buy or sell. Would you be interested?

I think you might consider it. Using this accessory could give you a big leg up on life, but before you buy, I would be aware of certain caveats. Namely that this leg up is possible only if you are one of the first users, and if access to this implant is restricted to only yourself and a few others. What if everybody had one?

Good question, but please note that the only part you actually played in this scenario was in deciding whether to go ahead with this plan, or not. The rest was done for you, not by you.

Let’s take a closer look.

Intelligence can be information, but that is true only in the world of espionage. Having information is not intelligence. Data does nothing on its own. To be useful, it must be assimilated. It must be sorted and stored so that it can be accessed by our minds. Intelligence may be defined as acquiring and applying knowledge, but what our intelligence actually does is different. It connects the pieces together, but to do that, we need the pieces floating in our minds to begin with, and that takes time and effort. That takes study. Real intelligence allows connections and relationships to form between all those things we’ve actually learned, particularly when we aren’t thinking about them.

C. S. Forester once said that he worked out ideas by conceiving of them as logs and throwing them into the waters of his mind. There, they would sit and gather barnacles. He would fish them out from time to time to mark their progress. Gradually, plots would form, and ideas would grow.

The greater the intelligence, the greater the ability to connect ideas and concepts that are seemingly disparate. It’s almost a kind of magic.

For myself, I think my eyes will always be bigger than my stomach and likely bigger than my brain, which brings me to my final point. It’s not instant access to information—or even how much is available—that makes us smart, but how we organize and order what we already know. Take away that organization, and there is no intelligence, only supposed facts. Strengthen it, and we might all turn out to be geniuses, but here’s the thing: only we can organize our minds to really see. Nobody else can do that for us, and no accessory can either—only us. It’s never what we look at but how, that really counts.

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