Saturday, December 17, 2011

Mark Pagel on the Loss of Creativity & Increasing Cognitive Docility

Genes replicate. Which is to say, they copy. Biologist Mark Pagel takes this idea and applies it to social learning today. We have become, largely, a culture of copiers. Innovators and creative people are vanishing. Pagel writes: "At no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers."


In my Philosophy of Religion classes I give one-on-one, face-to-face oral exams on the questions I teach on. For a few reasons: 1) this is the way to do real philosophy; 2) I can find out what the student really knows; and 3) I don't have to read papers which have been mostly cut-and-pasted from the Internet.  From a teaching standpoint, this is very interesting in a world of copiers (not original thinkers). On #3 - the cut-and-paste phenomenon is turning professors into Internet archaeologists who can now access programs to unearth whether or not a student is plagiarizng.

Pagel is not an Internet-basher. He's trying to understand culture. As I consider these words they ring true to me. I see this stuff unfodling before my eyes, in the classroom.

"As our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.
The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn't the comment of some reactionary who doesn't like Facebook, but it's rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we're more and more connected to each other, there's more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that's what we do.
And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who's doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that's telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it's playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. And Facebook is encouraging that."

From a theological POV the last thing the Church needs is even more docility.