In her article “The Internet of Way Too Many Things,” Allison Arleff reviews some of the exciting new products on display at Target’s trendy Open House store in San Francisco. There’s Leeo, a night light “that ‘listens’ for your smoke detector to go off and then calls your smartphone to let you know your house might be on fire.” There’s Whistle, a $100 doggie dongle that “attaches to your pet’s collar and allows you to set a daily activity goal customized to your dog’s age, breed and weight.” And there’s Mimo, a web-enabled onesie that monitors your baby’s “body position” during the night. “When Mimo is connected to other devices in your home and discerns that your baby is stirring,” reports Arleff, “the lights turn on, coffee begins brewing and some Baby Mozart starts playing on the stereo.”
Welcome to Peter Thiel’s “innovation desert.” You’ll die of thirst, but at least the mirages are amusing.
There’s something else going on here, though, something deeper than the production of trinkets for neurotics. Each of these products is an example of a defining trend of our networked age: the outsourcing of common sense to gadgetry. A foundational level of human perception and competence is being mechanized through apps and online services. The more mediated our lives become, the more we rely on media to make sense of the world for us. We can’t even trust ourselves to take Rover for a walk.
I would like to modestly propose a hypothesis that I think explains a lot about the way we live today:
Smartness is a zero-sum game.
I call it the Law of the Conservation of Intelligence. There is a fixed amount of intelligence in the world, and every time we think we’re creating new intelligence, what we’re actually doing is just redistributing the intelligence that’s already there.
Take the so-called Internet of Things. When we imbue an inanimate object, a thing, with smartness, we’re not conjuring up that smartness out of nothing. We’re simply transferring a bit of smartness that already exists, in our own minds, into the thing. IBM tells us that we’re building a Smarter Planet, but what IBM doesn’t say, at least not in its marketing materials, is that as the planet gets smarter its occupants get dumber.
If you’re struggling to follow my line of thought here, let me offer you a simple, easy-to-understand graphic:
Arleff describes another new product that provides a practical illustration of my point. The product is called Refuel. It’s a “black plastic sensor-enabled ring that monitors your propane tank levels and sends you notifications when propane is low.” Running out of propane when a hot dog is only half done is frustrating, and it can ruin a good cookout and even result in social embarrassment. To avoid this situation, owners of gas grills will often, through their own innate resources, develop a means of gauging the amount of gas left in a tank. Some will, for instance, lift the tank and judge its fullness by its weight. Others will tap the tank, judging its fullness by the sound it makes. These are simple examples of how a person, through experience dealing with the sometimes irritating stuff of the world, gains the intelligence necessary to operate successfully in the world. But as soon as you introduce a black plastic sensor-enabled ring that buzzes your smartphone when the tank’s low, you remove the need to grapple with the mysteries of the propane tank and hence are also relieved of the opportunity to develop insight into the nature of such tanks. The intelligence that would have lodged in your own mind is instead transferred into the thing.
Now, I know that the Law of the Conservation of Intelligence will be controversial. It’s nothing if not counterintuitive. We have long taken it for granted that intelligence behaves not like energy but like the universe itself: it just keeps expanding. Intelligence is perpetually tumescent. For proof, we often point to the famous Flynn Effect. This is the discovery that, throughout most of the twentieth century, IQ scores steadily increased. Surely, the Flynn Effect shows that the sum total of intelligence is expanding.
Actually, though, the Flynn Effect is just another illustration of the Law of the Conservation of Intelligence. As James Flynn, the political scientist who discovered the effect, has explained, what the Flynn Effect really shows is a redistribution of intelligence, not a growth of intelligence. One way of being smart — the way required to do well on IQ tests — goes up, but other ways of being smart go down. We aren’t “more intelligent” than our ancestors, Flynn has said, but rather we have “learnt to apply our intelligence to a new set of of problems.” We have, to be precise, “detached logic from the concrete.”
So, for instance, we may be much better than our great-grandparents at answering a multiple choice question like this:
“A tractor is to a farmer as a hammer is to a ________.”
But our great-grandparents would be much better than we are at diagnosing and fixing an actual malfunctioning tractor. We can do analogies till the cows come home, but if our tractor breaks down in the middle of a field, we’re fucked. We’ve shifted intelligence from that part of our brain labeled “common sense about real tractors” to the one labeled “abstract reasoning about conceptual tractors.”
This is probably one of the reasons why per-capita ownership of tractors has gone down sharply over the years while per-capita consumption of plastic containers of triple-washed baby lettuce leaves has gone way up. In a decades-long process of intelligence redistribution, the crop-growing knowledge that was once distributed widely among the population was first concentrated into the minds of a small group of specialists and then transferred into machines. You can, today, be too dim to know how to wash lettuce, and yet you can still have a perfectly nice salad.
There have recently been signs that the Flynn Effect is petering out. IQ scores are stagnating, or even slipping, in some developed countries. Here in the United States, we’re seeing a steady erosion of intelligence measures as reflected in the results of SAT tests — even as classrooms are outfitted with all manner of “smart technology.” This, too, makes sense when seen through the lens of my hypothesis. Thanks to machine learning and other artificial-intelligence techniques, computers are getting better at analytical tasks. So as we become more reliant on machines for abstract thinking, our own ability to think abstractly shrinks, just as our own ability to think concretely has already withered. The cloud gets smarter; our own minds get cloudier. Thus is intelligence conserved.