Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Opinion

Blumner: Siri doesn't have the answer, but John Henry might

As the legend goes, John Henry worked himself to death in winning a daylong contest against a steam-powered hammer drilling holes in rocks for explosive charges to build a tunnel for a railroad.

Henry's pyrrhic man-versus-machine victory that day did not bode well for Team People.

Right now I'm representing organic life in a series of iPad Scrabble matches against the game's computer. I'm not doing our species proud.

For instance, who knew that "obolus" is a word, never mind its meaning (a silver coin in ancient Greece equal to one-sixth of a drachma)?

That was one of the many obscure words my automated opponent has used to confounding effect, along with "ait," "lek," "qindar," "stime" and "eyrir." You can look them up like I did. Here's a hint: It helps to know currency denominations around the world and the lexicon of Middle English.

So far, with the settings on "advanced" play, which isn't even the top rung of "expert," the computer has beaten me every time.

The closest I came was within one point, and I think it was just toying with me. "Who do you think you are," I imagine it taunts, "Garry Kasparov, Ken Jennings, Dave Bowman?"

Don't bother reaching for your smartphone. Dave Bowman is the astronaut who turns off HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey after HAL goes renegade.

These days we all walk around with the collected knowledge of mankind at the ready. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, anything connected to the Internet settles disagreements that used to involve lively discussion, asking others to chime in or, if all else failed, rummaging through reference books. Now, when an answer stalls on the tip of your tongue, it is always at the tips of your fingers. Details of historical events, word definitions, who said a famous quotation, whatever the question, it is no longer necessary to pull esoterica from a far corner of your brain. Arguments are over before they've started. Siri says.

Having this capacity for instant confirmation and correction is a little like living that fairy-tale comeuppance scene in Annie Hall when Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, gets into a confrontation with a pretentious moviegoer behind him in line over the work of Marshall McLuhan. The moviegoer claims to know all about McLuhan, a philosopher of communications theory, since he teaches media studies at Columbia University. Allen then pulls McLuhan from behind a movie sandwich board. "I heard what you were saying," McLuhan snaps. "You know nothing of my work."

Game, set, match.

I watched the scene on my iPad to refresh my memory.

This is life now. We are all about 10 seconds away from knowing anything about everything.

It leads to the question, is it worth memorizing anymore? I can still recall parts of The Walrus and the Carpenter, the epic poem by Lewis Carroll I doggedly committed to memory in middle school for a class assignment.

On YouTube there is a wonderful recitation of the poem by actor Nigel Planer with a proper British accent and a delightful menagerie of character voices, and a Google search instantly offers numerous text versions. If I can carry it in my pocket, why should I carry it in my head?

Will all this makes us lazy or efficient, happier or just overwhelmed?

We are at the early stages of figuring out what the ubiquity and democratization of all knowledge means. How MOOCs, massive open online courses, will change education. Knowledge that once cost a lot to come by — reference books and college courses — is now free or nearly so.

Even as this offers stunning opportunities for universal education and improved lives, how can this model be sustaining when pay for teaching, research and writing shrinks or disappears altogether? What happens to Team People when we become largely superfluous to paid work?

Siri doesn't have the answer to that one, but John Henry might.

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