The Topsight Tendency

April 18 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: General   Rating: 4 Hot

Every now and then I cannot resist the urge to speculate wildly about the nature of the system we live in. Here’s the latest attempt:

Thesis: If A) communication, technology, information and human cognition have and are still evolving inter-dependently, and B) a major goal of their co-evolution is an increase in human topsight ability, then C) we are about to undergo a fundamental change in the way we cognitively relate to the world, one that allows us to get establish “topsight” over various systems much more quickly.

My hunch is that as we drive accelerating change in communication, technology and information, those very structures are exerting serious reciprocal force on both the genetic evolution of our brains and the evolution of the memes (or software) that we use to build our ideas of the world. Seeing as though no one component can exist or evolve without support from the others, it seems logical to assume they will continue to co-evolve until something truly dramatic occurs.

Theory: Topsight is fundamental to human evolution and is catalyzed by inter-related progress in communication, technology, information and human cognition.

In addition to innovations that catalyzed resource-related efficiencies (Hard Tech: stick, shovel, hydraulics, tractor, assembly line), the evolution of human society was made possible by technological advances that allowed people to communicate more effectively (Soft Tech: words, symbols, writing, printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, internet), which in turn permitted humans to better pool, shape and apply knowledge. These hard technologies and soft technologies arose auto-catalytically in a chicken-or-the-egg dynamic. Ongoing breakthroughs in hard technology were made possible by better human communication and new ideas. Likewise, breakthroughs in communication technologies were made possible advances in the hard sciences.

In other words, the growth of technology, communication and information has been interdependent, stretching way back to the beginning of human civilization, and probably human evolution. (cont.)

But there’s also a fourth component to this evolution: human cognition. As tech, comm and info grew steadily, so did the human ability to process external information and sensory input into actionable knowledge. It’s likely that this occurred both due to 1) Hardware Upgrades: the genetic evolution of the brain, frontal lobe and executive system (responsible for “processes such as planning, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions, and selecting relevant sensory information”), and 2) Software Upgrades: ongoing memetic or concept evolution that resulted in new more or less easily download-able information packets or abstractions (causality, morality, gravity, math, economics, evolution) that made it easier to understand the complex system around us.

It is my contention that both the genetic and memetic components of cognition evolved, and still do evolve, auto-catalytically with tech, comm and info. Furthermore, I’d argue that tying them all together is a perceptual ability that David Gelertner has coined “topsight”, which is the cognitive capacity (enabled and enhanced by access to information, technology and powerful memes, I’d argue) to more quickly comprehend both the system as a whole or complex slices of the system.

A quick look around reveals abundant circumstantial evidence for such an evolutionary topsight drive. The existence of maps, encyclopedias, theories that explain system dynamics, 3D system models, etc all seem to confirm the human topsight tendency. They also enforce the notion that human topsight depends largely on external components consisting of information and technology, made possible and accessible by communication. Thus it is clear that while topsight requires humans, it is not exclusively a human phenomenon – unless we broaden the definition of humanity to include comm, tech, info (and probably also some other environmental elements) – but an underlying evolutionary tendency, which makes sense as something to strive for if we believe that the tendency of life systems is to better their ability to survive an to thrive, in which case better and better topsight is essential and should be sought after.

Consequences: Accelerating change in communication, technology, information and intelligence will steadily result in better and better topsight.

Cognitive philosopher James Flynn largely attributes steady gains in human IQ over the past 100 years to environmental factors that increase our ability to think abstractly. He believes that memeplexes like science and categorization/classification have resulted in better on-the-fly problem solving capabilities because they permit humans to apply knowledge across different situations. As far as topsight is concerned, Flynn asserts that, “If technology gives one an overview of a system (say the brain) so that one can absorb it as a unit rather than piecemeal, that will be a great step forward in many areas of science.”

While Flynn stops short of correlating technology growth with rising IQ scores, the evolutionary trajectory of topsight and its inter-dependence with comm, tech, info and cognition indicates that the two have been linked up until now, though it is possible that they may diverge if another suitable form of cognition (namely AI) is created.

In either case, if achieving topsight is a fundamental underlying goal of evolution, facilitated by growth in comm, tech, info and cognition, then we humans should expect a near-term topsight boom that transforms the way we think. It seems likely that such a boom would last at least until General AI is achieved, human brainpower maxes out, humans choose decadence over acceleration (as Flynn speculates is possible), or Earth experiences a mass extinction event. Barring such occurrences, or some off-the-wall scenarios (like worldwide YGBM, thought-viruses, other attention-grabbing concerns) we can expect our thinking ability to evolve by leaps and bounds.

To me it appears that a new topsight shift is already underway, is being catalyzed by the following laundry list of emerging technologies and structures made possible by convergent accelerating change:

Simulations: Education theorist Clark Aldrich has presented evidence that the use of simulations makes it easier to transmit concepts. Aldrich asks the loaded question, “If books liberated us from kings, can sims liberate us from CEOs?”, indicating his belief that new comm technology will allow us to better understand complex social and business dynamics at a lower cost.

Backing up the notion is evidence indicating that patients with brain injuries can learn and rehabilitate faster through interaction with simulations coordinated by brain scanning. It’s also been shown that the brain can absorb more sensory/visual data in a given span than text/language info.

Games: Serious Games is a booming field. The military has discovered that games are useful for training troops for both combat and social interaction. “Game-based schools”: are about to become a reality. Distance education is booming thanks to increasing connectivity and new virtual learning platforms. While games are not the exclusive answer to better eduction, they do seem to be a learning accelerator that can help to transmit complex concepts and behavior in a shorter span of time.

Virtual & Mirror Worlds: New virtual worlds are springing up left and right, enabling richer distance communication, improved transmission of certain and interaction with complex ideas (graphical data, business structures, crowd dynamics), and new modes of control over physical technologies like server farms. Virtual worlds have the potential to amplify our imaginations, increase our operational efficiency and to change the way we see certain social and environmental structures. A subset of virtual worlds, mirror worlds like Google Earth are quite literally boosting our systems topsight.

Google Search: As computing speeds increase, Google’s database of information gets better at returning more meaningful search results in a shorter amount of time. The company’s Director of Research, Peter Norvig, has speculated that a few years form now it may even feel like we’re having a conversation with the search engine. If Google is an extension of our brain(s), as I’ve heard many people say, then it follows that its growth will affect the speed and manner of our thinking.

It’s interesting to note that researchers have discovered striking similarities between the way that Google facilitates search based on page-rank and the way that our brains retrieve results from our memories.

Social Search: Not only are Google’s crawlers and algorithms facilitating the quicker location of information, social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Digg, and MemeBox are tapping the wisdom of the crowds to structure bodies of information, making them more accessible and searchable. Many web experts speculate that what’s emerging is a social graph that maps everyone and their relationships, which resonates nicely with the concept of topsight.

Semantic Web: New technologies being developed by semantic web companies like Twine, Metaweb and Adaptive Blue that have already or are due to hit the market this year will allow users to very easily or even automatically generate webs of meaningful associations between web-based content. In addition to faster Google search and the rise of social search, semantic search will accelerate time-to-information and gradually reveal human meaning structures that may well correlate nicely with memes and memeplexes.

Brain Computer Interfaces: Interfaces that connect the brain directly to software that can interpret its signals will first serve to broaden our outgoing communication pipeline, then, in all likelihood, help accomplish the same for inbound information and memes. In addition to haptics, universal language translation, and touch/3D interfaces, such devices will serve to free up brain space for topsight.

And so forth.

Conclusion: The preceding list and my suspicions about the inter-related nature of communication, technology, information and cognition represent circumstantial evidence for the theory that topsight is a human and broader evolutionary tendency. In my mind, it all adds up to a convincing argument that topsight is a product of both biological and technological forces. New research will undoubtedly reveal the truth of the matter. Perhaps a neuro-scientist will isolate memes and present a model of the forces that affect and spread them. Perhaps an evolutionary psychologist/anthropologist will demonstrate a convincing statistical link between the evolution of the frontal lobe and the incidence innovations. Perhaps a biologist will show us that genes that code for topsight have been selected for throughout Earth’s history. Or perhaps we’ll discover that topsight was a temporary evolutionary fad that has just about run its course.

However it turns out, it sure is an interesting puzzle to take a crack at.

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